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Molly’s Game

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Stars: Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Graham Greene, Idris Elba, Jeremy Strong,Jessica Chastain, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera

Released: January 1st, 2018

Molly’s Game begins with a prologue of sorts that efficiently and eloquently establishes who this woman is, where she comes from, what type of person her nurturing has led her to be, and how she is unable to approach anything without learning every aspect of it and giving it her full attention. Molly’s Game begins as one would expect any Aaron Sorkin-penned script to: with a lot of big words, fast sentences, and overall impressive language that paint a picture of an even more impressive specimen. That’s what Molly Bloom, as played by the beautiful Jessica Chastain, is here: a specimen. Bloom is an individual who might serve as the best kind of example of our species as she was raised on the assembly line of a father who manufactures exceptionally smart and athletically trained children; Molly being abruptly spit out into the real world when an injury sets her Olympic career back. That said, she has issues of her own and while most certainly stem from that overbearing and overly critical nurturing she received from her father (Kevin Costner) some can still be attributed to the nature of Bloom and who she grows to be as an individual outside of her father’s control. This is all to say that Molly’s Game, as it begins and as it continues to show us the layers and intelligence of its complex protagonist throughout, is a fascinating character study and peek behind the curtain into a world many knew existed, but few had any idea the details of or of how it operated. It’s only a shame Sorkin’s latest on which he makes his directorial debut is lacking in any type of visual flair that might match the wit and research that has clearly gone into the dialogue being spouted. It’s not that Molly’s Game doesn’t look acceptable or even like a big Hollywood production should-it does, but the problem is that it looks so much like a standard Hollywood production it takes away from the exceptionalism of the story being told. This is a story as slick and as insider-y as one could imagine and thus the aesthetic and editing should match in a way that emphasizes as much. Instead, while having no doubt watched countless innovative filmmakers do their thing over the years Sorkin resorts to playing his debut as a series of safe choices that lend no style to a story that is all style. While this doesn’t derail the film overall, it certainly doesn’t enhance the rich material, character work, and lead performance Chastain has fully lent herself to.

Like I said in the opening paragraph, Molly’s Game begins with this establishing monologue of sorts that tells us who she is and immediately sets us into the mentality of our narrator. After being taken through this mindset of a character who talks like a Sorkin character, but from her story and upbringing we come to see why Sorkin was so interested in telling this particular story, and thus come to feel that the real Bloom’s mentality and penchant for no-nonsense chatter might fall somewhat in line with that of Chastain’s representation. Granted, I haven’t watched the real Bloom on any YouTube videos and have only seen a picture of her after looking up details about her book (a book used heavily in discussions that take place in the movie), but I imagine Chastain attempted to mimic speech patterns, inflections, and vocal mannerisms best she could as she certainly seems to have tried to look as much the part as possible. Chastain plays the woman as this anti-wife, an attractive woman who encourages the men to gamble, who has models serving them drinks, and thus inherently makes them flock to her. This is a good thing though, for to understand how Bloom became who she became there needs to be at least an attempt at an accurate portrayal of the physical aspects of the character as much as there is an intellectual one. From this opening monologue through to our main character breaking free of her father’s clutches and moving to Los Angeles to live on her own for the first time Sorkin and his editor move at a rapid fire pace in order to soak the audience in this environment and the makeup and disposition of this character. From here, the narrative Molly’s Game is actually tackling begins to take shape. Sorkin begins by showing us the arrest of Bloom two years after having run her last poker game as part of a bigger, more intensive take down of several suspected Russian mob bosses for which Bloom seems to have no idea of why she is included on such a roster. By opening with this arrest and working backward, Sorkin is able to frame the story of how Bloom came to be a twenty-six-year-old cocktail waitress who then ended up running a private weekly poker game for some of Hollywood’s highest rollers in a way that isn’t simply a straightforward retelling, but more a conflict of Bloom’s truth against the media, the tabloids, and her lawyer’s instinct. This reference point of Bloom’s lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), allows for the story and Sorkin’s script to check itself intermittently when it seems what we’re seeing on screen is so outlandish and so unbelievable that the audience is assured this did happen in the fashion Bloom is describing and, despite the film being based on a true story, that Molly’s Game‘s entire premise is undoubtedly stranger than fiction.

“Waiting for the call I knew was coming.” is a line that is repeated several times throughout the film by Bloom herself. This line demonstrates Bloom’s ability to be a few steps ahead of those she’s become entangled with. It tells the audience she can read people, but most of all it gives the story this sense of stakes not automatically present for those of us that don’t fully understand the dynamic of poker. “Poker is a game of skill, not of chance,” Bloom also says at one point in the film and so there is this preciseness that is constantly suggested whether it be in the characters intuition, the largest factor in the whole of the content, or the tone of the writing. At the same time, Sorkin outlines the events of Bloom’s tumultuous journey while using these events to provoke a study of the type of character Bloom is. This is screenwriting 101, but one would be remiss not to mention how effortlessly Sorkin pulls off as much here as his screenplay is viciously entertaining in that it chronicles these unbelievable events while, without the audience suspecting it, genuinely conveys the “why” of Bloom’s arc. Why does Bloom do this? Why does she become so involved despite all the promise her previous life held? To run potentially illegal poker games and make untold amounts of money, but still risk all that she worked her entire life to build? This is the question that comes to be at the forefront of our minds as Sorkin weaves back and forth between Bloom and Jaffey hashing out her case and the recollection of her exploits years prior. This is the question that, despite the movie taking us through the world of the Viper room, Bloom’s stint as a secretary for Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), and the running of his games prior to running her own in a more extravagant and comfortable fashion while using the leverage of the presence of celebrities such as individuals simply referred to as Player X (Michael Cera), comes to rest on the conscience of the audience. One could argue it is these games that give Bloom a sense of purpose. After all, everything she’d ever done or accomplished prior to starting her life in L.A. could be traced back to her father and it was out of this desire to make something out of her own life on her own accord that she leaned so hard into the first great opportunity to come along despite knowing in the back of her head it probably wasn’t the best choice. This adds on another factor though, this idea that everything in her life prior going back to her father and his overbearing nature in an effort to ensure his children never failed and were always the smartest person in the room that hints consistently at something more inherent in Bloom’s internal conflict and drive. Was her father tough on her? Of course he was, but she was equally tough on him-picking fights and for what reason other than to try and exercise the same control over him as he did over her. It is this sense of control-this sense of power over powerful men-that comes to be the prevailing idea; it’s just too bad Sorkin spells it out instead of letting it marinate.

What is most enjoyable about Molly’s Game though, is the way Sorkin utilizes each element of the film to add to the evolution of how Bloom’s story progresses in the ultimately catastrophic way that it does. Each of these sequences being told with the kind of well-informed dialogue and effective editing that convey such elements in an engaging fashion. That is, until about the hour and a half mark where, with fifty minutes still remaining, Bloom moves her operation to New York where the drugs begin to get more frequent, the measures more extreme, and a feeling of necessity to actually break the law in order to cover her own ass come into play. Laws that violated criminal codes. And while this third act is the least interesting visually and the most amateur feeling in terms of direction it does offer the breaking point of this frat house of degenerates that Bloom has built. It would be a sin to allow Sorkin to get away with some of these directorial choices though as some of the visuals are downright jarring. For instance, scenes where Bloom is riding in the backseat of a car and the obvious green screen behind her shines through, or a sequence where a mobster comes to visit after Bloom fails to comply with certain wishes that looks as if it were shot and edited by a first year film student, while what is maybe the most inharmonious scene being when Bloom goes ice skating to remember what it feels like to have that kind of freedom and Chastain literally looks as if she’s pantomiming the act against a painted backdrop. These are all executed with good intentions mind you, but they drag down that already highlighted high style of the piece that much more and leave a sour taste in the mouth of the viewer. This sets the film on a path towards a denouement where all the air has been sucked out of the room and what comes to pass is what is ultimately expected as Sorkin explains everything to its full extent allowing the film to culminate in a scene that is melodramatic at its core, but unarguably effective-especially as performed by the likes of Elba and Chastain. I liked Molly’s Game, but I wanted to love it. Molly’s Game is a movie that acts as if it is about these outlandish lifestyles and immoral felons, but what it’s really about is a woman whose sole purpose is to keep the honor of her name intact who withstands the psychological toll of coming so close to pure success multiple times in her life and losing. It documents a woman who, by all accounts is hard to kill, and has the ability to move from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm which assures us no matter what comes next Bloom will likely be fine, but it isn’t necessarily enough to move this movie about her from something that is a purely entertaining thrill ride into that of an electrifying account that will be long-remembered.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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