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

The Shack

For F*** Magazine

THE SHACK 

Director : Stuart Hazeldine
Cast : Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire, Radha Mitchell, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Mature Content)

Sam Worthington has encountered aliens, robots and the Greek pantheon across his acting career. In this faith-based drama, Worthington comes face to face with God Himself – or Herself, as the case may be.

Worthington plays Mack Phillips, who has endured a difficult childhood with an abusive father (Derek Hamilton). Mack is happily married to Nan (Mitchell), his wife of 18 years, and they have three children together: Josh (Munroe), Kate (Charpentier) and Missy (Eve). A family tragedy leaves Mack in shambles, questioning the existence of God. When Mack receives a letter inviting him to ‘the Shack’ signed ‘Papa’, Missy’s nickname for God, his first instinct is that it’s a cruel joke. In a moment of desperation, Mack decides to investigate, on the off chance that God really might be waiting for him in the woods. He is greeted by Papa (Spencer), Jesus (Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire). While Mack is unable to believe the bizarre circumstances, at first, he eventually allows his soul to be healed as he spends time with the physical manifestations of the Holy Trinity.

The Shack is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young. The self-published book eventually became a best-seller, resulting in lawsuits over royalties and authorship. It’s as funny as it is sad that behind this inspirational novel which has been credited with “changing lives” is a story of greed and animosity. While The Shack is beloved by millions around the world, it has also drawn the criticism of several theologians, pastors and priests, who claim that it misrepresents God as described in the Bible and that it echoes New Age teachings.

Faith-based movies have gotten a bad rap, criticised for everything from poor production values to the use of strawman arguments. The Shack tackles topics that are darker and less comfortable than one would find in your average Christian movie. It makes a valiant attempt at addressing hurt and anger at God. At its heart is the Problem of Evil, the conundrum of how to reconcile a benevolent God with the existence of evil. This has been mulled over by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the answers presented in The Shack aren’t exactly convincing. There’s plenty of blatant emotional manipulation, and after a downer of a first act, things get syrupy fast.

“The secrets we keep have a way of clawing themselves to the surface,” narrator Tim McGraw intones. Judging by Worthington’s performance, Australian accents are a lot like secrets that way. There are many dramatic moments in which Mack tearfully pleads with the members of the Trinity to explain why God allows such terrible things to happen in the world. Worthington isn’t phoning it in, but there are times when it seems like he might’ve run off in-between takes to make panicked phone calls to James Cameron, demanding why Avatar 2 isn’t ready for production yet.

The film’s portrayal of God the Father as a black woman has raised several eyebrows. Apparently, this is a form with which Mack will be comfortable, which is why God chooses this guise to appear to Mack in. While Spencer’s performance brims with good-natured warmth, this is an example of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope through and through, the Southern mammy housekeeper.

We acknowledge that this is the first English-language film to actually cast an Israeli actor as Jesus, and depicting Holy Spirit as an ethereal Japanese woman is, if nothing else, interesting. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves, also shows up, as does Brazilian actress Alice Braga. It’s kind of a step in the right direction that the film has as diverse a cast as it does, but it has the unfortunate implication of people from other ethnicities guiding the white guy to spiritual enlightenment. This is exactly what Doctor Strange, which cast a white woman in a traditionally Asian, male role, was bending over backwards to avoid, creating a new set of controversies in the process.

Many other works of fiction have attempted to humanise God, to render a figure often seen as distant and unapproachable more relatable. The Shack’s approach to this is one of the reasons why it’s been decried as heretical by certain scholars. There are viewers who might find comfort in seeing the Trinity being relaxed, friendly, patient and caring. However, there are others who might consider this too Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque, its blend of sentimentality and magical realism altogether too cloying. Other reviewers have mocked The Shack as coming off like a special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show – at one point, Winfrey herself was linked to the Papa role in this film. There are many who have found the novel to be therapeutic, and a psychiatrist and family therapist named Brad Robison has even written a study guide after using the book in his practice. It didn’t have this effect on us.

The use of a fantastical parable to address feelings of loss, bereavement and confusion is a fine starting point, and one that could have been the basis for a poetic, poignant film. Instead, The Shack is on-the-nose and clumsy. It’s different enough from the traditional idea of a ‘Christian movie’, but is content with peddling platitudes rather than provoking thought.

Summary: A mawkish faith-based parable, The Shack trades in emotionally manipulative melodrama and faux-sage truisms.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong