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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

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Beale Street Movie Marker

Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie Rating Movie Marker

Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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