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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!

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Climax Still Movie Marker

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and un-tameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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