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

Hidden Figures

For F*** Magazine

HIDDEN FIGURES

Director : Theodore Melfi
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG

 

hidden-figures-posterDuring the 1960s, the world was transfixed by the Space Race, during which the United States battled the USSR for the conquest of the final frontier. While attention was lavished on the astronauts, the engineers and technicians who made the missions possible went largely unnoticed. This film sheds light on several real-life unsung heroes who laboured to make Project Mercury a success.

It is 1962 and Katherine Goble (Henson), a mathematics prodigy, works at the West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine’s colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) are also part of a group of female African-American “computers”, who performed complex calculations manually before computers as we know them today were in widespread use.

hidden-figures-janelle-monae-taraji-p-henson-and-octavia-spencer-1

Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group overseen by Al Harrison (Costner), becoming the only black woman amongst the group of white engineers. She earns the contempt of head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), whose calculations she double-checks. Dorothy appeals for a promotion to supervisor, which is rejected by her manager Vivian (Dunst). Concerned that the installation of the IBM 7090 computer will render her and her team obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself the programming language Fortran and trains her colleagues in it. Mary yearns for an engineering job at NASA, but is required to take extra University of Virginia classes, which are held in an all-white high school, to qualify. Mary makes her case to attend said classes before a judge. With the Americans and Soviets neck-and-neck, the contributions made by Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and their peers are key in the success of the American space program.

hidden-figures-taraji-p-henson-writing-on-chalk-board

Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled ‘The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’. Lee’s father worked as a research scientist at the Langley facility, and she grew up among African-American families with members who worked at NASA. Lee’s book was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing. True stories like this are why the biopic subgenre exists, and the story of the African-American women who launched a rocket through the glass ceiling is one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen.

hidden-figures-taraji-p-henson-and-octavia-spencer

The obstacles that stood in the way of these women were numerous, seeing how they were marginalised for both their race and their gender. Hidden Figures provides ample historical context, with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary standing at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race. Because this is a story about mathematicians, it can get dense and technical at times – this reviewer will be first to admit to being terrible at and intimidated by maths. The film does not dumb down this crucial element of the story, and great pains are taken to credibly portray the process of calculating trajectories or programming the IBM 7090.

hidden-figures-janelle-moane-1

Henson’s lead performance is engrossing and mesmerising. She portrays Katherine Goble as someone who is as passionate as she is hardworking, since Katherine did not have the privilege of merely coasting on her innate talent at mathematics. After her husband James dies of a brain tumour, Katherine and her mother Joylette (Donna Briscoe) are left to care for Katherine’s three children. The film’s romantic subplot, in which military officer Jim Johnson (Ali) woos Katherine, is just the right level of sweet.

hidden-figures-kevin-costner-1

While Henson’s Katherine gets the most screen time out of the three leads, Dorothy and Mary get their own satisfying arcs as well. Dorothy’s drive in getting ahead of the curve so as not to be displaced by the newly-installed machines is rousing, while Monáe brings a confident feistiness to Mary, the most outspoken of the trio. Between this film and Moonlight, singer-songwriter Monáe is proving that she possesses not only impressive pipes and stage presence, but considerable acting chops too.

hidden-figures-glen-powell-octavia-spencer-janelle-monae-and-taraji-p-henson

Costner is a dependable presence as the firm but fair director of the Space Task Group. However, the supporting characters are where some of Hidden Figures’ authenticity is eroded. Composite characters are common in films based on a true story, and it turns out that “Al Harrison” is an amalgamation of three different directors at NASA’s Langley facility. This was done because Melfi was unable to secure the rights to portray the real-life NASA director. Both Parsons’ and Dunst’s antagonist characters are also fictional. They serve to embody the general prejudices of the times without being over-the-top villains, but also give the story a slightly Hollywood-ised feel. On the other hand, there’s actual historical figure John Glen, portrayed with winsomeness and good-natured charm by Glen Powell.

Hidden Figures is by no means a subtle film, but the racism of the time was far from subtle. This is a prestige picture that does not radiate hollow self-importance, but shines a light on little-known heroes who had the deck stacked against them. Thanks to this film and the book on which it is based, the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary remain hidden no longer.

 

Summary: While it’s fashioned as an awards season crowd-pleaser, the importance of Hidden Figures can’t be denied. More than just a history lesson, this film is genuinely inspiring and its message is as pertinent as ever.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Criminal

For F*** Magazine

CRIMINAL 

Director : Ariel Vromen
Cast : Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Alice Eve, Jordi Mollà, Antje Traue, Michael Pitt
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 21 April 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

Like most moviegoers after the release of Deadpool, this action thriller finds Kevin Costner with Ryan Reynolds on the brain. Costner plays Jericho Stewart, a hardened criminal who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, making him the ideal candidate for a top secret experimental procedure. When CIA agent Bill Pope (Reynolds) is incapacitated in London while tracking down hacker Jan Strook (Pitt), CIA station chief Quaker Wells (Oldman) enlists the help of neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Jones). Dr. Franks has spent 18 years developing a way to implant the memories of a dead person into a living human being. Jericho is coerced into completing Bill’s mission, but things do not go according to plan. Jill (Gadot), Bill’s widow, has to come to terms with the fact that a complete stranger now possesses her husband’s memories. Even though he wants nothing to do with the mission, Jericho must prevent a flash drive that Strook has from falling into the hands of ambitious anarchist Xavier Heimdall (Mollà).

            Criminal plays a lot like a high-concept 90s action movie repackaged in a strait-laced, post-Bourne espionage thriller style. The sci-fi tinged concept of memory implants is akin to the face-swapping plot device in Face/Off, albeit slightly more plausible. There’s no eye-catching bombast, but the slightly overwrought names like “Jericho Stewart”, “Quaker Wells” and especially “Xavier Heimdall” seem like they belong in a Bond movie. Criminal boasts a cast that is more star-studded than one would expect for a thriller with a relatively low budget, estimated at a mere $31.5 million dollars. Even though there are many moments that reminded this reviewer of any number of direct-to-DVD action flicks, the production values are sufficiently high and there’s a visual effects sequence involving a submarine that looks surprisingly good. The shootouts and car chases are far from inventive, but the action keeps things chugging along.

            Even though it’s largely generic, Criminal does possess a unique trait: it’s protagonist is, well, a criminal, with completely disregard for human life. He’s not a charming rogue, he’s not a conflicted hero; he’s a heartless, emotionless brute. Naturally, some character development occurs as the personality of his “memory donor” intrudes into Jericho’s mind. Jericho is introduced chained up in a prison cell, sporting scraggly long hair and a beard, being recruited against his will for a clandestine mission – not unlike Sean Connery’s character in The Rock. Incidentally, the screenwriting team of David Weisberg and the late Douglas S. Cook also penned The Rock. Suffice it to say that Costner is no match for Connery in the charisma department, but the character’s resourcefulness and violent unpredictably help mitigate Costner’s blandness somewhat.

            The supporting players, Oldman and Jones in particular, definitely seem above this material and not very much is asked of them. Oldman’s Quaker Wells stands about the situation room fretting and gets to throw his signature yelling fits. Jones frowns and looks worried. Perhaps some viewers might find that their presence subconsciously lends this silly action movie some prestige. Reynolds is in this for a very brief amount of time since, well, his character’s death is the catalyst for the plot. It’s a little funny to see Reynolds in another mind swap flick so shortly after Self/Less. Gadot is called upon to emote and she does sell that sense of loss, anger and confusion with the little screen time she’s given. Mollà is basically being discount Javier Bardem here, with his character’s motivation outlined via an interview with Piers Morgan. Actor/stunt performer Scott Adkins shows up as the right hand man to Quaker, but alas, he doesn’t get to bust any of his famous martial arts moves.

            This reviewer derived an extra level of enjoyment because a large portion of the cast has been a part of movies based on DC Comics. Just imagine: Jonathan Kent is implanted with Hal Jordan’s memories thanks to a procedure invented by Dr. Two-Face, Hal Jordan’s widow is Wonder Woman, his boss is Commissioner Gordon and the henchwoman on Jonathan Kent’s tail is Faora. It’s evident that the plot, even with its sci-fi elements and ticking clock, wasn’t compelling enough to hold our full attention. There are attempts at being topical – Edward Snowden is name-dropped – but these are ham-fisted rather than helping make the movie seem relevant. It’s somewhat ironic that a film with the plot device of memory implants will not remain in anyone’s mind for long, but its competently directed by Ariel Vromen, it doesn’t look cheap or messy and the central character is (or at least starts out) fairly different from run-of-the-mill action heroes.



Summary: Criminalis about as generic as its title suggests, but the action is decent if unremarkable and the A-listers in the supporting cast help to prop it up. 

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong