Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

For inSing

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

Get to know the heroes and villains of this Marvel adventure

By Jedd Jong

Filmgoing audiences were introduced to Prince T’Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us to T’Challa’s  home country of Wakanda. The technologically-advanced African nation has harnessed the rare mineral Vibranium, derived from a meteorite that crashed there millions of years ago.

Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kicks off its tenth anniversary – the first MCU film, Iron Man, was released in 2008.

The character is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics. Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, and was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Writers including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists including John Romita Jr., Brian Stelfreeze and Denys Cowan have worked on the Black Panther title.

The Black Panther film is already receiving rave reviews, with some calling it the best film in the MCU so far. The first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, Black Panther is making an impact on the landscape of comic book films in a similar way that Wonder Woman did last year.

Before the movie whisks you off to Wakanda, here’s a primer on the characters you will meet there.

#1: T’CHALLA/BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman)

Chadwick Boseman has portrayed pioneering figures in African-American history in several biopics: baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42, the godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. “The projects that I end up doing…have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to black people,” Boseman said.  “To see black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.”

Boseman studied with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and underwent an intense physical training regimen with martial artist Marrese Crump to perform the fight scenes. The film sees T’Challa struggle with the loss of his father, as he tries to keep the growing civil unrest in Wakanda under control – and face a challenger to his claim for the throne.

#2: ERIK STEVENS/KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan)

While Michael B. Jordan was in the critically-savaged Fantastic Four reboot, that did not scare him off taking on another role in a comic book movie. Like Chris Evans before him, who also played the Human Torch in two earlier Fantastic Four films, Jordan gets a second chance with a different Marvel character.

Jordan starred in Coogler’s earlier films Fruitvale Station and Creed, reuniting with the director as the main villain Killmonger. Killmonger is a Wakandan exile who became an American black-ops soldier, and believes that the Wakandan throne is rightfully his. Jordan described the character as “somebody you guys can root for,” calling him “a revolutionary.” Jordan repeated the adage that the villain believes he’s the hero of his own story. “If you can kind of get [the audience] to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won,” Jordan remarked. Having already played a boxer in Creed, Jordan brought some of that physicality to Killmonger, saying that Coogler’s action scenes “tell a story with each punch”. Jordan also had to learn how to be handy with guns – “the weapons training is a totally different muscle,” he said.

#3: NAKIA (Lupita Nyong’o)

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan intelligence operative and the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. As a ‘war dog’, Nakia goes undercover on foreign soil, risking her life for the safety of her country. Nakia is one of several memorable female characters featured in the film. Nyong’o describes Nakia, who hails from Wakanda’s River Tribe, as “determined and methodical” and having “a quiet power”. Nyong’o asserts that Nakia is “she’s not your average love interest,” and that she and T’Challa have “a complicated past.”

“Wakanda is where we could be, where women are occupying their space in the future of a nation, they’re contributing equally and they’re allowed to realize their full potential and a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s,” Nyong’o observed. Nyong’o signed on without even reading the script, having admired Coogler’s previous work. After reading the script, she said she “couldn’t even believe it was a Marvel film, because it was so poignant, so politically and socially awake and aware.” The character’s fighting style is informed by judo, jiu-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts. She also learnt Korean for a scene set in Busan.

#4: OKOYE (Danai Gurira)

Danai Gurira, best known as silent badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, plays yet another commanding character: Okoye, the leader of the elite Dora Milaje bodyguard corps. Gurira was drawn to “the idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening,” of putting country before personal politics – a dilemma that Okoye finds herself in.

Gurira describes Okoye as a traditionalist, saying “She has a pride and a patriotism about her nation. It goes beyond patriotism; it’s something even deeper.” Gurira spoke about travelling to Zimbabwe and seeing how excited the people there were about Black Panther. Musing on the impact the film will have on children of African descent all over the world, Gurira said “they’re in the centre of the screen, their faces are what you’re seeing. Their perspectives, their struggles, their stories, their characters, their destinies. That’s what we’re focused on, and their heroism.”

#5: SHURI (Letitia Wright)

Many reviews have noted Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, as the scene-stealer of the film. Shuri is a 16-year-old genius scientist and inventor, who has devised cutting-edge technology to aid her brother’s crime-fighting efforts. Chief of these is a new suit which can harness and redistribute kinetic energy from strikes, and which fits into a necklace. In the comics, Shuri assumes the mantle of the Black Panther after her brother is grievously wounded in combat. Coogler says that Shuri’s genius is “on par with Tony Stark”.

Letitia Wright, who is being called the film’s breakout star, was recently seen in the fourth season of Black Mirror and will next be seen in Ready Player One. Wright was inspired to become an actress after watching the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. While she describes herself as being “obsessed” with acting, faith was ultimately where she found her centre. “I don’t really consider myself religious. I view it more as a relationship,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind if anyone finds that “weird”. And if anyone thinks that’s weird, then okay.” Wright says Shuri has “an innovative spirit and an innovative mind,” and as the embodiment of the future of Wakanda, “wants to take Wakanda to a new place”.

#6: RAMONDA (Angela Bassett)

The regal Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, is played by Angela Bassett. She too is reeling from the death of T’Chaka, her husband, but always appears calm and composed. In addition to being his mother, Ramonda is also one of T’Challa’s most trusted advisors. “It’s a lot of strength and balance and beauty and I’m just thrilled by getting to work with Danai and Lupita and actresses and brand new faces across the diaspora, it was beautifully cast,” Bassett said, adding that “it’s going to be quite a sight and I think it’s going to be magnetic.” Bassett played Amanda Waller in Green Lantern, and turned down the role of Storm in X-Men. This knowledge is wont to make one feel a little weird, since Storm and T’Challa ended up getting married in the comics.

#7: ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis)

Andy Serkis reprises his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the cutthroat South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo for the motion capture work, when director Joss Whedon invited Serkis to play the role of Klaue.

When we last saw him, Klaue had his arm cut off by Ultron, and it’s now been replaced with a Vibranium cannon. “He’s got a humorous side to him, he’s got a sense of humour. But he’s equally very deadly and he’s quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly,” Serkis said. Audiences are more used to seeing Serkis portray characters via performance capture, so this is the rare blockbuster in which he gets to show his real face.

#8: EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman)

CIA agent Everett K. Ross first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, helping to capture the film’s villain Zemo. Martin Freeman reprises the role here. Ross crosses path with T’Challa in Korea, and winds up travelling to Wakanda himself, where he finds himself in the thick of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the main cast. “Making the film, it’s not lost on you. You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy’,” Freeman recalled. Freeman reunited with Serkis, whom he worked with on the Hobbit movies in which Freeman played Bilbo opposite Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol.

 

 

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Black Panther movie review

For inSing

BLACK PANTHER

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown
Genre : Action / Drama / Science Fiction
Run Time : 2h 14mins
Opens : 14 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

After making his debut on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His ascension to the throne will not go too smoothly, otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting movie.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa arrives home for his coronation. It is a bittersweet affair for T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). T’Challa is welcomed by elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the Dora Milaje bodyguard corps General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend and undercover Wakandan intelligence operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s claim to the crown is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a hardened American black-ops soldier with an enigmatic link back to Wakandan royalty. Erik has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the arms dealer who pillaged Wakanda’s valuable supply of Vibranium some 20 years ago. While tracking down Klaue, T’Challa runs into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who finds himself along for the ride as Wakanda wages a battle for the nation’s very soul.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Shuri tells her brother. Black Panther takes these words to heart, taking something that works – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and improving on it. The MCU is now in its 10th year, and while it’s generated far more hits than misses, one still hears murmurs about ‘superhero movie fatigue’. The MCU movies have found an effective formula, but we want something different, something more.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, delivers that. The world-building in Black Panther is dazzling, with wonders waiting around every corner in Wakanda. The politics of the country are portrayed in an engaging manner, and Shakespearean palace intrigue is melded with the whiz-bang Afrofuturism of hovering vehicles and suits of armour that emanate from necklaces. Hannah Beachler’s production design and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design contribute to a visually captivating world brimming with texture.

Said world is populated by beautifully-realised characters – this is yet another MCU movie which boasts a cast stacked with talent. Boseman made an impression in Civil War with the stern dignity and undercurrent of vulnerability so crucial to T’Challa. The character continues to be noble but never boring, idealistic and principled without being naïve. T’Challa treats the throne with awe and respect as he mourns his father’s death. Boseman is thoroughly convincing as a steadfast leader.

Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Coogler’s two previous films Creed and Fruitvale Station, brings swagger and contemptuous arrogance to the role of Erik. Erik’s Golden Jaguar suit means this is yet another solo MCU movie in which the hero fights an ‘evil inversion’ of himself – see Iron Man vs. Iron Monger or Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket.

However, there’s more to Erik than your bog-standard MCU villain. Erik has one of the best motivations for an MCU villain yet, and while his tragic back-story has hints of melodrama to it, it’s also compelling and it’s easy for the audience to see his point of view. His rage and hunger for power make us root against him, but his righteous indignation and inner turmoil come from a genuine place.

Black Panther introduces some of the MCU’s best female characters yet. Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, is a kickass right-hand woman to T’Challa who’s handy with a spear and doesn’t suffer fools. Nyong’o, who always exudes warmth and quiet intelligence, serves as a foil to Okoye while being formidable in her own right.

Letitia Wright steals the show as Shuri. Anyone who’s ever had a little sister will recognise the sometimes-annoying, sometimes-endearing traits the character displays. It’s also fun to see Shuri’s eyes light up when she talks effusively about her various mind-boggling inventions, including a new suit of armour for her brother. Executive producer Nate Moore has said that Shuri is even smarter than Tony Stark, and Wright seems to be having as much fun in the role as Robert Downey Jr. has with his.

Andy Serkis, probably grateful that audiences are getting to see his actual face instead of a computer-generated character with his expressions, reprises the role of Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron. He bites into the South African accent with relish and is wild, ruthless and entertaining.

Angela Bassett is suitably regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda – we wish she had more to do, but there’s already so much going on in the story. Whitaker’s Zuri is pretty much the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film – Whitaker himself has said as much. Cleverly enough, Freeman’s Everett Ross plays an important role without overshadowing any of the leads.

Black Panther makes a further case for the cinematic universe as a sandbox for the vision of a talented filmmaker. It never feels like Coogler was curtailed or hampered by corporate higher-ups, and yet this feels of a piece with the existing MCU canon.

Black Panther boldly steps into territory that the MCU hasn’t quite trodden before. While there are the expected superhero origin story tropes, the film’s rich tapestry of culture, technology and action spectacle gives it a welcome freshness. The world of Wakanda is one you’ll want to dive into, and there’s potential for its further exploration in sequels to come.

Hang around for a mid-credits scene, and a second post-credits stinger.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Last Flag Flying movie review

For inSing

LAST FLAG FLYING

Director : Richard Linklater
Cast : Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson, Yul Vasquez
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 2h 5mins
Opens : 25 Jan 2018
Rating : NC16

In this comedy-drama, three Vietnam war veterans reunite and rekindle their friendship, but under less-than-ideal circumstances. It is December 2003, and Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell), a former Navy Corpsman, receives the devastating news that his son Larry Jr. has been killed in Iraq. Doc asks bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and pastor Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who served in the Marines in Vietnam alongside Doc, to accompany him to retrieve and bury his son’s body.

Doc, Sal and Mueller arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to receive the body of Larr Jr. There, the trio meets LCpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was Larry’s best friend in the Marines. Sal butts heads with Lt. Col. Willitis (Yul Vasquez), as Doc tries to process the loss of his son and Mueller attempts to counsel him. Despite the tragedy that brought them back together, the three men rediscover their friendship and work through each of their own issues which have been remained unresolved over the last 30 years.

Last Flag Flying is based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Ponicsan is known for the 1970 novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. While the novel was a direct sequel to The Last Detail, featuring some of the same characters, the film adaptation of Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail instead.

Last Flag Flying deals with some heady themes, including those of loss, faith, patriotism and friendship. It packages this into a male bonding comedy-drama, and winds being a modest, moving film. The film pays respect to veterans without veering into overblown chest-thumping territory. There are times when the film feels hampered by its road trip structure, but the dialogue is well-written and balances interaction between the characters with exposition. Our trio of protagonists must face truths about themselves and confront long-buried secrets, each man at a different point on his respective journey to make peace with himself and his past.

In recent years, Carell has made considerable efforts to push past his comfort zone as a comedic actor, and he puts in a quiet, sombre performance. Sadness weighs on Doc, sadness he doesn’t know how to express. There are times when the withdrawn meekness comes off as an affectation, but Carell is largely convincing in his portrayal of a man in the throes of crushing grief.

Cranston is the movie’s dynamo. As the belligerent, alcoholic Sal, Cranston gets all the movie’s best lines. Sal is confrontational and speaks his mind, and is wildly expressive, giving Cranston the chance to display his physical comedy chops. Naturally, there’s a hollowness at the centre of all this, and Sal is a broken man using humour to cope. He is the instigator of much of the conflict, and keeps things moving.

Of the three protagonists, Mueller is the most at peace with himself, having found God and heeded his calling to become a preacher. Fishburne starts out calm, but there are points when Mueller is pushed to his breaking point. The character often acts as mediator, and it’s to the film’s credit that his faith is treated seriously rather than mocked outright. The arguments that Mueller and Sal have over the existence of God aren’t anything we haven’t heard before, but Mueller’s point of view registers as a valid one.

Quinton Johnson, who recently made his Broadway debut in Hamilton, is warm and likeable as Charlie. Charlie is the only real link audiences have to Larry Jr., as most of what we know about Doc’s slain son is conveyed by Charlie. Veteran actress Cicely Tyson shows up in an emotional, subtly sad scene.

“Every generation has its war,” Sal observes pithily, adding “Men make the wars; wars make the men”. There might not be as much depth here as we would’ve liked, but there still is resonance to Last Flag Flying. It’s a low-key film that can sometimes feel a little slow, but is given life by its trio of protagonists. The screenplay balances sensitivity with ‘guy’s night out’ brashness, never coming across as sanctimonious or preachy even as it deals with serious issues. It could stand to be a little tighter, but there’s warmth, wisdom and just a dash of silliness that makes Last Flag Flying worthwhile and thought-provoking.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

I, Tonya movie review

For inSing

I, TONYA

Director : Craig Gillespie
Cast : Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace
Genre : Biography, Drama, Sports
Run Time : 1h 19m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)

Every awards season, we get at least a few inspirational sports biopics about resilient athletes who overcome insurmountable odds, becoming heroes to people everywhere.

I, Tonya is not that movie.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the first U.S. female figure skater to pull off the extremely tricky triple axel move. If you were around during the 90s, you might have a vague recollection of the rivalry between Tonya and fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). This culminated in Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) planning an attack against Nancy. After a hired hand breaks Nancy’s knee with a retractable baton, it isn’t long before suspicion falls on Tonya and Jeff.

The film follows the lead-up to and aftermath of this incident. Tonya’s mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) mercilessly pushes her daughter, and Tonya’s life revolves around abusive relationships. Facing numerous setbacks and eventually cast as a villain by the media, Tonya pursues her dream of being the #1 figure skater in the world.

I, Tonya is an acerbic subversion of your bog-standard awards bait sports biopic. It’s sometimes unpleasant, and intentionally so. Director Craig Gillespie, who previously helmed the more traditional sports movie Million Dollar Arm, takes a black comedy approach to Tonya Harding’s life story. He directs from a screenplay by Steven Rogers – this is easily the Love the Coopers screenwriter’s edgiest work.

Tonally, I, Tonya is tricky. It wants the audience to laugh at the ‘white trash’ characters that populate the story, while also empathising with them. It wants to be cynical and snarky, yet sincere. There are moments when the cracks begin to show, but given the ambitiousness of this juggling of moods, I, Tonya works far better than it might have in different hands.

The film is framed with interview sequences in which the characters, a gallery of unreliable narrators, speak directly to camera. Outside these interview scenes, we also get fourth wall breaks. Everything is caustic, everyone is varying degrees of broken, and yet, it’s funny. The ice skating sequences are also absolutely mesmerising and thrilling, pinpricks of gracefulness in the blackness of awful people being awful.

Robbie, who is also the co-producer through her Lucky Chap Productions label, holds this all together. She throws every ounce of herself into a performance that is impossible to look away from and which has deservedly netted her an Oscar nomination. Piercing through the public perception of Tonya, Robbie paints the portrait of someone who has been knocked about her whole life, Tonya’s unsportsmanlike behaviour and overall demeanour a result of that. Robbie is flashy, sincere, wild and showcases impressive physicality, under the tutelage of coach Sarah Kawahara. This is the ‘sink-your-teeth-into-it’ role actors live for, and Robbie makes quite the meal of it.

Even with that highly unflattering moustache, Stan is still quite loveable. The Jeff character isn’t meant to be – he’s a dope, and he’s abusive, but is he malicious? Is he even smart enough to be capable of malice? The relationship between Tonya and Jeff rivals that of Harley Quinn and the Joker in the ‘toxic and unhealthy’ stakes. The film’s depiction of domestic abuse is harrowing, but doesn’t quite fit in with the devil-may-care glibness established earlier.

Janney handily steals the show as the abrasive, cruel, yet oddly endearing LaVona. Janney undergoes a complete transformation, and while we’ve seen the cigarette-smoking stage mom archetype before, she unearths several layers to the character. LaVona’s abusiveness towards Tonya contributes to Tonya’s acceptance of Jeff’s abuse after they are married. Janney is hotly tipped to take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance.

The film also works to dispel the myth that parents who push their children past their breaking point in the pursuit of excellence are helping their children, and that’s what their children need. LaVona thinks that Tonya performs best when she is enraged, so she engineers situations to throw her child off balance – it’s psychological abuse.

As Tonya’s long-suffering coach Diane Rawlinson, Julianne Nicholson is the sole source of purity, comfort and level-headedness in this sea of scuzziness. Her presence offers a respite from the overwhelming unpleasantness of everything else.

Paul Walter Hauser has a good deal of fun with the role of Shawn, the schlubby friend with delusions of grandeur who ‘masterminds’ a criminal plot with consequences far beyond what Jeff or Tonya could have imagined. This section of the movie plays a bit like a Coen Brothers caper, with bumbling characters who are not very good at being up to no good.

I, Tonya is challenging in that it leaves the audience laughing but uncomfortable as they’re doing so. The film is sympathetic to its title character, but also leans into the tabloid perception of her as it attempts to dig beyond that surface. Mostly, I, Tonya is a terrific showcase for Margot Robbie’s increasingly stunning talents as a leading lady.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Phantom Thread movie review

For inSing

PHANTOM THREAD

Director : Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast : Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Richard Graham, Camilla Rutherford, Harriet Sansom Harris, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In any year when Daniel Day-Lewis stars in a film, every other actor nominated for acting awards alongside him must be quaking in their boots. Those days might be over, since Gary Oldman is the hot favourite to win the Best Actor Oscar for Darkest Hour, and more so, since this film is purportedly Day-Lewis’ final movie.

It is the 1950s, and Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a highly sought-after London dressmaker, whose clientele includes socialites and European royalty. Reynolds’ singular brilliance is coupled with particularity and imperiousness, making him difficult to be around. Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) manages the day-to-day operations of his fashion house.

While eating at a restaurant in the countryside, Reynolds meets young Belgian waitress Alma (Krieps) and is immediately taken by her. Alma becomes Reynolds’ muse, and is by his side constantly. Cyril is initially suspicious of Alma, since she disrupts Reynolds’ working rhythm. A rift soon develops between Reynolds and Alma, as she struggles to get out from under his controlling grip. Reynolds must decide what is more important to him: the love of a woman, or his chosen craft.

Phantom Thread is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, often hailed as one of the finest directors working. His filmography includes There Will Be Blood, The Master, Boogie Nights and Magnolia – this is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, an auteur’s auteur, widely admired by his peers. Anderson just picked up his seventh Oscar nomination, but has yet to win one. His work is meticulous, but also sometimes difficult to get into. Phantom Thread is an arthouse film through and through, and more impatient audiences might find it challenging to engage with.

The film succeeds as a layered exploration of what it’s like to fall in love with an obsessive artist, and the power struggle that results in such a relationship. Reynolds is, in many ways, an absurd man. He is exacting, temperamental and inconsiderate, but this is viewed as the price of his genius as a fashion designer. While Phantom Thread does get intense, it’s also surprisingly funny. While 1950s London high society is depicted as a rarefied world that audiences get to peek into, the film also acknowledges the inherent silliness of how the fabulously wealthy act.

Day-Lewis is, it goes without saying, superb. While he doesn’t undergo a drastic physical transformation as he did for earlier films including My Left Foot and Lincoln, Day-Lewis still constructs a fascinating, magnetic character. Day-Lewis is famous for being a method actor, never breaking character the entire time he works on a given movie. There’s a degree of mystique to him, and as such, it seems apt that he plays an artist who sets only the highest standards for his own work. Reynolds has obvious unresolved mommy issues, but Day-Lewis’ performance and Anderson’s writing ensure that the character is more than your stock ‘tortured misunderstood genius’ type.

Vicky Krieps is a Luxembourgian actress who will be unfamiliar to most English-speaking filmgoers, but who is poised to become a sought after in Hollywood after her stunning turn in this film. It mustn’t be easy to hold one’s own opposite Day-Lewis, which Krieps does. Alma is something of a faux-naif, and seems like she’s less than Reynolds in every way: social standing, education and refinement. It is a joy to see Alma gain the upper hand and take him on when she is tired of living solely on his terms. The relationship ends up being unpredictable, and the interplay between Day-Lewis and Krieps gives the movie its spark.

Manville scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Cyril. The almost symbiotic relationship between brother and sister has an intriguing dynamic – it can be interpreted that Reynolds sees his sister as a substitute for his late mother. Cyril’s omnipresence also makes Alma feel like she can’t have Reynolds to herself. In some ways, it’s a love triangle, but not in the traditional romantic sense – it’s more like a power triangle.

There are bound to be viewers who will decry Phantom Thread as pretentious, or others who might find it unintentionally funny because it is so mannered. However, cinephiles will likely appreciate the care with which Anderson has crafted this film, and the work of his collaborators, from Mark Bridges’ costumes to Jonny Greenwood’s piano-driven score. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ swansong, it is an excellent performance to remember him by – but there was never any doubt it would be.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

12 Strong movie review

For inSing

12 STRONG

Director : Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky
Genre : War/Action
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Armed Forces leapt into action, sending troops into Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. 12 Strong tells the story of Task Force Dagger, who were the first personnel to take on the Taliban in the weeks following 9/11.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) has no combat experience, but volunteers to lead Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595. He is backed up by Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), with whom Nelson has trained. Nelson’s team also includes Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).

The men of ODA 595 must win the trust of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the leader of the Northern Alliance who has plenty of experience fighting the Taliban. Nelson and company traverse the mountainous terrain on horseback, towards the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. If the Northern Alliance and the U.S. Forces can wrest control of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, it will strike a crushing blow to the enemy. Outnumbered forty to one, Nelson, Dostum and those under their command wage a bloody, explosive battle.

12 Strong is based on the nonfiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, by journalist Doug Stanton. The book was adapted for the screen by Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally and Hunger Games scribe Peter Craig. This film marks the directorial debut of Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig – his experience as a war photojournalist must have informed the making of this film.

There are many films set during World War II which are couched as inspirational and uplifting, some of them in danger of romanticising the war. The protracted war in Afghanistan and Iraq has weighed heavily on the consciousness of the American public. 12 Strong is an account of a recently-declassified battle that took place early on in this war. While the movie wants to be thrilling and emotional, it’s difficult to overlook the larger context which is not presented in the movie.

12 Strong wants to be an old-fashioned epic, complete with majestic, sweeping establishing shots, and our heroes riding on horseback as explosions go off behind them in slow motion. It also wants to reframe the narrative by emphasising that there were Afghans who allied themselves with the U.S. troops. However, the film’s handling of this comes off as a naive “there were good Afghans! Who would’ve thought?” viewpoint.

The film has some pacing issues, and the countless sequences of our heroes on horseback rounding yet another mountain pass, in between cutting back to the other characters who are back at the base, becomes repetitive. However, the payoff is spectacular: the climactic battle is drawn out and overstuffed, but is visceral and exciting. It must’ve been quite the logistical undertaking: there are tanks, explosions, guns, rocket launchers, helicopters, bombers and yes, horses. However, there’s the niggling feeling that since this is based on a true story, we shouldn’t be ‘enjoying’ the action sequences the way we’d revel in the thrills of a sci-fi action movie or a fantasy picture.

Hemsworth cuts quite the heroic figure astride a horse. While he and the other actors in the cast attempt to imbue their characters with some personality, as is often the case in military movies like this, the characters can become indistinct and blur together. It is fun that Hemsworth’s real-life wife Elsa Pataky makes a cameo as Nelson’s wife in this film.

Shannon, one of the more interesting actors out there, doesn’t get too much to do. Shannon is often cast in villainous roles, but maybe he’s just more interesting playing those characters, as opposed to the straight arrow Spencer. Even then, he’s played heroic characters who were more engaging to watch before.

Negahban is charismatic as Dostum, battle-hardened and commanding. The film’s portrayal of the warlord seems a little simplified for the sake of convenience. Dostum is a polarising, controversial figure, but in 12 Strong, he occupies the role of ‘wise native’. “Stop being a soldier,” Dostum counsels Nelson, motioning to Nelson’s heart. “Start using this”.

“America is famous for making propaganda movies,” Negahban said, adding that he hopes 12 Strong shows “we are acknowledging, we are honouring those people who put their lives on the line to help get rid of terrorism or war, to bring peace.” Maybe it’s a start.

            12 Strong is co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, famous for his high-octane mega-blockbusters. While the film is thrilling and rousing at times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that recent military history has been put through an action movie lens. While there’s spectacle and Chris Hemsworth makes for a great action hero, 12 Strong would like us to believe that Chris Hemsworth can save the day riding in on horseback, when we know it’s far from that simple.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

For inSing

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Director : Martin McDonagh
Cast : Frances McDormand, Woody Harrleson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Željko Ivanek
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 57 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh traverses from In Bruges to Outside Ebbing, after a detour caused by Seven Psychopaths, with his third feature film.

The film revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother grieving the death of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). A year after Angela’s rape and murder, no arrests have been made. Mildred rents out three disused billboards (three guesses as to where they’re located), calling out Ebbing Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards draw a strong reaction from the Ebbing populace, including Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – not least because Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer. Both Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) take issue with the billboards, blaming Mildred for reopening that wound. Mildred still has a few people in her corner, including her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren), and James (Peter Dinklage), who harbours feelings for Mildred. Mildred hopes the billboards will put pressure on the police to solve the case, but unexpected, violent consequences ensue.

If Seven Psychopaths was McDonagh channelling Quentin Tarantino, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh channelling the Coen Brothers. It’s a happy coincidence that Carter Burwell, who has scored most of the Coens’ movies, has also scored McDonagh’s previous two films. It seems less coincidental that McDormand, oft-collaborator of the Coens and the wife of Joel Coen, plays the starring role.

However, this is no mere act of mimicry. McDonagh, who is also an accomplished playwright, has brought his own lyricism to each of his films. Three Billboards is the most serious film McDonagh has made, but it isn’t without its outstanding moments of pitch-black humour.

In part because of the pulpier elements of McDonagh’s two earlier films, one might go into Three Billboards expecting all the characters to be broadly-drawn archetypes. It seems almost by design that the audience thinks they have each player in this story figured out the moment we see them. “There’s the righteous mother,” “there’s the lazy cop”, “there’s the scumbag ex-husband”, that sort of thing. The surprises along the way are organic and well thought-out.

While Three Billboards wears its references on its sleeve, it subverts expectations with masterful subtlety. The dialogue, stuffed with words we can’t print, sounds authentic as spoken by these characters – especially impressive considering the writer-director isn’t American. The fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri has a realistic bleakness to it, and does seem like the place where something awful might happen and the world at large just wouldn’t notice it.

McDormand leads an ensemble of talented actors who do the material justice and then some. When it comes to strong performances per capita, Three Billboards is at the top of the heap this awards season. All the performances are the right degree of over-the-top – colourful and exaggerated enough to grab the viewer’s attention, but not to the point of being cartoony.

McDonagh wrote the Mildred role with McDormand in mind, and the character plays to all McDormand’s strengths as an actress. Mildred is tough-as-nails, bitter and takes no guff from anyone. Beneath the unyielding exterior, she is grappling with unspeakable grief and frustration and is a deeply flawed, conflicted person. The dramatic move she makes in renting out the billboards stirs up trouble, just as she planned, but she ultimately gets more than she bargained for.

We’re conditioned to root for Mildred and against Chief Willoughby, so we’re naturally surprised when the Chief ends up being not an awful person. We won’t give away too much, but Harrelson is able to shade the character while making him a little larger than life, and the interplay between Willoughby and Mildred is intense but restrained.

Rockwell’s character goes through the most dramatic arc. Dixon is racist, lazy, belligerent and often abuses his authority – but that’s just how the character begins. Rockwell has often portrayed characters who are slimy charmers, but he digs deep here, delivering a layered, fascinating performance.

The supporting cast members all snap right into place. Hedges, who was nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, is believably conflicted as Mildred’s son. Hawkes is aggressive but not ludicrously so as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie. Samara Weaving steals the show several times as Penelope, Charlie’s dim-witted girlfriend, showcasing delightful comic timing. Dinklage is likeable and just awkward enough as the designated ‘nice guy’ whose affections for Mildred are unlikely to be reciprocated.

Not everything here works: the film’s handling of race is clumsy and inconsistent, and as the film barrels towards its conclusion, a few noticeable plot contrivances start stacking up. As assuredly as McDonagh handles the tone, some viewers might still find it jarring when the film moves from its truly harrowing moments to its lighter-hearted ones.

Three Billboards succeeds as an indie darling-type film that is rough around the edges and is never too precious about itself. The film recently collected four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Drama and awards for McDormand and Rockwell. The film’s peculiar yet finely tuned mix of grimness and off-kilter humour keeps it interesting, and its performances, especially McDormand’s, are thoroughly riveting.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Post movie review

For inSing

THE POST

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
Genre : Biography/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 1h 56 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : PG13

         Every awards season, there are bound to be at least a few ‘big important movies’ – films based on true events that have a timely relevance, boasting pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The Post ticks all those boxes.

It is 1971. The New York Times runs a story about how the U.S. government has been lying about the Vietnam War to the public, based on leaked clandestine reports which document the ongoing war, going back over 20 years. These reports were compiled on the instructions of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defence, for academic study.

Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female owner of The Washington Post, is about to publicly list the paper. While the Initial Public Offering will broaden the Post’s reach, Graham also fears losing the control entrusted to her by her late husband, who succeeded Graham’s father as the owner of the paper.

President Nixon and the Attorney General file an injunction against The New York Times, taking the paper to court over the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the opportunity to dig further into the story. Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikan (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the source, former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and procures more than 4000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. Graham must choose whether to publish, at the risk of her and Bradlee being imprisoned, and with the paper at stake.

The sitting President of the United States has made no secret of his disdain for the press, branding any outlet which runs stories unfavourable to him as “fake news”. This climate prompted Steven Spielberg to rush The Post into production, and he made this film while his next movie Ready Player One was in post-production. The Post makes a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press, but perhaps it makes that statement a little too obviously. “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?” Bradlee exclaims, in one of several lines that spell out what the film is about.

Because The Post is made by people who more than know what they’re doing, it gets a lot right. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn (with additional editing by Sarah Broshar) do their usual fine work. The movie looks and sounds like how one would expect a 70s-set political thriller to look, and the setting feels authentic – complete with a multitude of unfortunate hairdos. While the first half of the film can be somewhat dry, things get genuinely thrilling as the movie heads towards an exciting conclusion. The stakes are clearly established, and it’s clear that the decisions the characters must make are consequential ones.

Behind the scenes, there’s the success story of Liz Hannah, for whom every aspiring screenwriter’s dream came true: her first screenplay was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight, rewrote Hannah’s script. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and the writer’s boyfriend encouraged her to pen a screenplay about the newspaper heiress.

The Post wants to be a personal story in addition to being a historical account, but struggles with the balance. A scene between Graham and her daughter Lally (Allison Brie) comes off as a slightly awkward attempt to generate emotion while also supplying some backstory.

The Post is at its best when its talented actors are turned loose. Putting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a scene together, regardless of context, is bound to produce electrifying results. The role of Kay Graham is comfortably in Streep’s wheelhouse: a powerful woman grappling with a monumental dilemma. Graham must make her way in a man’s world, facing doubt at every turn. She remains warm and personable even in the face of adversity, and is at once a magnetic and comforting presence.

Hanks has fun, biting into the role with relish. Bradlee is a dogged, persistent editor, who is described at one point as a “pirate”. Bradlee is a little more abrasive than your standard charming, affable Hanks part, and he spars with Graham and other characters throughout the film. Hanks and Streep visibly enjoy playing off each other, and Spielberg brings out the best in his stars.

The supporting cast is first-rate too: Paulson is especially likeable as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette, and gets an excellent scene in which she lays out why she admires Graham as Bradlee seems to dismiss his boss’ predicament. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk is funny and down-to-earth as assistant editor Ben Bagdikan, who flies back to Washington with the Papers safely buckled into the airplane seat next to him.

There’s no denying that The Post is timely and well-made, but perhaps it’s a little too aware of its status as a big important movie. It takes audiences from Point A to B with enough clarity, but perhaps not enough nuance, and it will be hard for some viewers to see past how obviously The Post is calibrated for awards season appeal.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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