Molly’s Game (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James, Graham Greene
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 140 mins

Molly’s Game is a competent film that has an especially strong first half, spearheaded by Jessica Chastain’s brilliant central performance. It is directed by famed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, behind films such as The Social Network and Steve Jobs, who now steps into the director’s chair. As is to be expected based on his previous works, the script is very sharp, full of quips and impressively wordy. Sorkin’s adapted screenplay is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic-class skier, who is targeted by the FBI for running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game, which the film investigates and recounts.

Chastain is brilliant in the lead role, who narrates her life experiences and when combined with Sorkin’s sharp script, is a particularly magnetic screen presence. The supporting cast, although typically extensions of Aaron Sorkin as they also possess an impressive vocabulary, are mostly solid. The standouts are Idris Elba as Molly’s lawyer who is reliably strong and Michael Cera and Bill Camp, as two poker players in the games. Cera plays a composite character of other famous actors who were alleged to have participated in the games (the film doesn’t disclose true identities). His performance is snarky and slimy and there is a moment where we see a very sinister side to his character that is executed to a tee. Camp, on the other hand, plays a gambling addict, and there is a particularly heartfelt and intense sequence mid-way through the film where he is literally playing for his life.

The first half of the film is a particular highlight and is frequently riveting. The prologue to the film, which recounts Molly’s skiing attempts, is a masterful sequence that is edited superbly and manages to synthesise the themes of family, competition and chance extremely assuredly. As Molly gets herself deeper into the world of poker, the film channels some of Scorsese’s gangster films juxtaposed by Sorkin’s peppery dialogue. It’s really well done and although the poker games are jargon-heavy, the script explains to the audience the nuts and bolts of what is going on, but suprisingly never in a patronising manner.

The second half of the film doesn’t fare quite as well and is tonally uneven. There are some great sequences scattered within, particularly a monologue by Elba’s lawyer and a vicious attack by a gangster, but it feels convoluted and lacks the energy that carries the first half.

The film could also have been much darker. Sorkin’s script investigates some mature themes such as gambling, drug addiction and the troubles and dilemmas within family. Had Sorkin explored these in greater, more intrinsic detail, the film would have been much better for it. Instead, it is more a slightly uneasy collection of ideas, but not all of them fully developed.

The chronology of the film also feels off. Different timelines are interspersed into the narrative and there were a few moments where I wasn’t quite sure where in the chronology the film was in. Also, Molly’s rise to the top took many years to achieve but it feels like days or weeks in how the film paces itself.

Furthermore, Sorkin isn’t as good a director as he is a writer but it’s clear to see that his past experience of working with directing heavyweights such as David Fincher or Danny Boyle for example, has paid off as he definitely seems to have learnt a few lessons from them. But considering Molly’s Game is as debut effort from him, it’s quite possible that after he has some more experience, he could be very good. At least the film looks the part as it is shot rather handsomely by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and Daniel Pemberton turns in a fitting if somewhat obvious score.

Molly’s Game is ultimately a good film with a stronger first half, anchored by Chastain’s and some of the supporting cast’s performances. Sorkin balances both directorial and screenwriting jobs well, even if his script outshines his direction. With a tighter second half, more experienced direction, more intrinsic analysis of some of the film’s darker themes and a better sense of chronology, Molly’s Game could have been brilliant. Instead, it is pretty solid with some gripping sequences, if rather ultimately unremarkable.

 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

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Hostiles (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Timothée Chalamet
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 135 mins

Hostiles is the latest film by Scott Cooper, a director whose work I have consistently enjoyed. Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart, received near unanimous praise from critics and audiences and earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar for his barnstorming performance. His second film, Out of the Furnace, received a decidedly mixed reception but I believe it is criminally underrated – a near-perfect revenge thriller that features some outstanding performances. Black Mass, his third film, thought not quite as good is still very solid, and marks a turning point in Johnny Depp’s lately waning career. Hostiles is a revisionist Western which sees Cooper reteams with his Out of the Furnace lead, Christian Bale, as Captain Joseph Blocker, who is tasked to escort the cancer-ridden Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Halk (Wes Studi) back to his homeland along with his family.

Hostiles is another winner – a visceral, downbeat and often gut-wrenching watch. There are many scenarios and moments in the film that are emotionally sapping and Cooper puts these characters through hell. Cooper again, manages to get the best out of his actors. The three leads – Bale, Pike and Studi, are all on top form, all giving career-defining performances. Bale’s Captain is gruff, sombre and constantly thrown arduous challenges both mentally and physically. Rosamund Pike’s character brutally loses all of her family in the very memorable first scene of the film and is psychologically damaged and tormented. There is one moment in particular when she first lays eyes on Studi’s tribe which reminds her of past horrors which Pike conveys brilliantly. It is testament to Wes Studi’s performance as Yellow Halk how much of an impression he is able to make – the character is underwritten but Studi is really able to do a lot with the role and manages to convey the bittersweet juxtaposition of his family beside him and the cancer eating away at him. Studi’s performance allows one to imagine how ruthless this war chief may have been back in his day but now is a more mellow, world-weary individual who simply wants to return to his homeland with his family.

Unfortunately, this notion of characters being underwritten is where the film falls short. Bale’s Captain is accompanied by many famous faces in his unit, but it feels like a roster that frequently gets swapped out for someone new when someone dies. Perhaps most disappointing is Ben Foster, a wonderful screen presence who suits the Western genre to a tee. I expected him to make more of an impression, but he has virtually nothing to work with. However, the two actors who make the biggest impression out of this group, despite still being underwritten, are Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane, who both appeared in Black Mass and Cochrane in particular, continues to prove why he is one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated talents.

Hostiles also has problems narratively. The film is a little overlong, as the journey these characters take is rather extensive. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the film would have succeeded better if Cooper had chosen to develop his characters more and lose some of the narrative baggage. I’m also of the opinion that the film ends one scene too late. The final scene states the obvious and is a little too neat in wrapping its narrative. It would have been much more cryptic had Cooper ended the film a scene before, which would have been in keeping with the rest of the film and its decision not to reveal everything.

At least, Cooper manages to create a wholly believable atmosphere even if the narrative and character development are somewhat lacking. The cinematography by Cooper-regular, Masanobu Takayanagi is jaw-dropping – there are frequent moments of awe in terms of how Takayanagi shoots the landscapes and he really makes the most of the locations, which refer visually to the Western classic, The Searchers. Max Richter’s score is also expectedly hypnotic – the score fits in so well with the film and is endlessly atmospheric, groaning and distorting with the sand flying around in the desert.

There is lots to wonder in awe at in Hostiles and the film explores its titular notion in many different ways through its characterisations and narrative. The craft and performances of the film elevate the film exponentially, almost enough to cover up the slightly meandering narrative and lack of character development. It’s certainly a lot more subtle in execution than Black Mass as Cooper regularly attempted to shadow Scorsese’s gangster classics, which worked but it didn’t leave much up to audience imagination. Cooper certainly has more commentary on the Western genre, a genre that many have commented has died. This is simply not true. Hostiles is further proof of the Caweltian transformation of the genre and stands up as an additional companion piece to recent Western works.

Despite some structural problems, Hostiles has stuck in my mind long after the screening and it’s a film that I think, will have a lot more to reveal about itself on rewatching. This is a film not to miss and actively seek out in its rather small release.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

All The Money In The World (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent) 

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 133 mins

It is quite a relief that All The Money In The World has finally made it to the big screen after a particularly noteworthy production. Director Ridley Scott’s J. Paul Getty biopic had been filmed and ready for release since late last Summer. When sexual harassment claims arose pertaining to Kevin Spacey, who was cast in the film as Getty, Scott made the unprecedeted move to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer and still make it in time for the film’s release. Scott succeeded with aplomb and Plummer managed to shoot all of the scenes in less than two weeks.

Although perhaps, the film will be remembered more for Scott’s daring move to replace Spacey with Plummer, All The Money In The World is actually one of Scott’s best films. It is frequently gripping and itts final act in particular, effectively ramps up the tension. It also features some brilliant performances from across its cast.

It is quite staggering how good Christopher Plummer’s performance is, considering how little time he had to prepare for it. The integration of the reshot scenes into the film are seamless and Plummer’s role is no small one. With particular reference to the beginning of the film, he is in almost every scene. J. Paul Getty is portrayed almost like a villain, but the beauty of Plummer’s performance is that he is so charismatic and there is a twinkle in his performance to not make the character seem so cold and sinister. Even if the circumstances had been different and Plummer had been on board since filming began, it is still a towering performance.

Plummer’s performance isn’t the only good one. Michelle Williams is also terrific as the mother, daughter-in-law to Plummer’s character, who desperately wants to be reunited with her son. Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher Plummer) as John Paul Getty III is also an electrifying, new screen presence and will hopefully be recognised for his work here. Finally, Romain Durais as one of the abductors also shines and his character feels like he is straight out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. Although Mark Wahlberg also features in the film, his performance is sound and doesn’t have quite as much of an impact.

It’s no secret that Scott’s films are only as good as the script he is working from. Poor scripts have plagued some of Scott’s films in the past, but luckily David Scarpa’s script is a cracker. Scarpa has a great ear for dialogue and particularly with Plummer’s character, there are multiple instances of pure poetry in the exchanges.

The film is not without problems though. It’s a little on the long side and a tighter edit would have benefitted the film’s pace. Scott’s film also would have fared better if he had dug beneath the surface a little more into the psychology of the characters and how money and the kidnapping affects them and the film would have had a little more bite to it.

Whilst it would be foolish to criticise Scott’s direction, again considering the circumstances, his direction here is a little workmanlike, sacrificing bigger ideas and themes in the process. It is more the performances and quality of the script that anchor this film over the finish line. Scott’s direction isn’t bad, it just lacks personality at times and the film didn’t feel like a Ridley Scott film, as it were.

All The Money In The World is overall, immensely enjoyable and a fun potboiler. It is frequently gripping and is propped up by the brilliant cast. Scott has had a varied career, Alien and Blade Runner at his peak, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood at his worst and then, many of his films fall in between with ambitious ideas but not necessarily great execution a la Alien: Covenant. All The Money In The World ultimately proves to be one of Scott’s best films and proves that with the right script and the right cast, he can still churn out greatness.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)