Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learned there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

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Wolves at the Door (2017)

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Some years ago an older friend of mine who is a psychiatrist said that showing another friend A Short Film About Killing had altered that man’s opinion about the death penalty with which he had previously agreedThe story of the film is about a passenger who randomly and brutally murders a taxi driver and is then sentenced to an equally violent death. Apparently this third party now agreed with my psychiatrist friend that the death penalty is wrong. My psychiatrist friend thought I would agree. I didn’t. I argued for my part that it was precisely the callous random nature of the act – a total stranger being murdered for pure pleasure, presumed sexual excitement and on a whim – that justified the punishment. A life for a life, if you will. My psychiatrist friend was duly horrified by my reaction. Nowadays I believe in life imprisonment. And I mean life. Which is all by means of introducing this re-staging of the horrifying so-called Manson Family murders 8th August 1969 of the beyond beautiful actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy), her unborn son Paul Polanski, her best friend Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge), Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher),  Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski (Adam Campbell), and Steven Parent (Lucas Adams), who wasn’t in the Cielo Drive house but met his end at the gates. If there is a text here that is worth discussion beyond the psychotic violence at the core of this exploitation film, it is about carelessness. How careless people are about their own safety, their presumption of civilised behaviour from others and the means by which a gap between our experiences and our expectations can be filled by the utterly inexplicable hate-filled rage of people we don’t even know, exiled from normalcy, refugees from society, indecent and obscene. There’s a reason we are hard-wired to have a circle of 150 family, friends and acquaintances – survival.It’s why kids are taught as soon as they speak, Stranger Danger. Some of this is expressed in the portrayal of William Garretson (Spencer Daniels) the so-called caretaker on the Polanski property who is portrayed here as a witless drug user with earphones clamped to his brain-dead head throughout. He finally died in 2016. Some of the perpetrators are still breathing. There are some episodes that do not require gruesome and explicit re-enactments. This vile explosion of depraved horror lingers in the communal memory for a reason. It fundamentally altered most people’s view of the death penalty which Manson and his smirking wenches escaped by the pure fluke of timing, unlike their wretched and helpless victims. One of them even got away to live her life in exchange for bearing witness. Other than that, I have nothing to add. Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by John R. Leonetti. Ghastly, tasteless and misjudged, in the truest sense.

Rules Don’t Apply (2017)

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A girl can get in trouble for having a case of the smarts. 1964 Acapulco:  a decrepit and isolated Howard Hughes is on the verge of making a televised phonecall from his hotel hideout to prove he doesn’t have dementia to dispute a claim by the writer of a book who may never actually have met him. Flashback to 1958, Hollywood:  Small-town Virginia beauty queen and devout Baptist Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), under contract to the infamous Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) arrives in Los Angeles with her mother (Annette Bening) to do a screen test for a film called Stella Starlight. She is picked up at the airport by her driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) only two weeks on the job and also from a religiously conservative background. He’s engaged to his seventh grade girlfriend. He drives them to their new home above the Hollywood Bowl where the sound of evening concerts wafts their way. She’s earning more than her college professor father ever did. The instant attraction between Marla and Frank not only puts their religious convictions to the test but also defies Hughes’ number one rule: no employee is allowed to have an intimate relationship with a contract actress and there are 26 of them installed all over Hollywood. Hughes is battling TWA shareholders over his proposals for the fleet as well as having to appear before a Senate sub-committee;  Marla bemoans the fact that she is a songwriter who doesn’t sing – so what kind of an actress can she be? And Frank wants to become a property developer and tries to persuade his employer to invest in him but Hughes is talking about a new birth control pill to him and when he meets Marla he talks to her about this thing called DNA that some English people discovered a few years back … It’s quite impossible to watch this without thinking of all the references, forwards and backwards, that it conjures:  that Beatty was tipped to play Hughes by Time after the mogul’s death, a decade after he had already espoused an interest in the mysterious billionaire who also lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a spell;  that he himself arrived in Hollywood at the end of the Fifties (via theatre) from Virginia and liked to play piano and got by with help from the homosexuals he impressed and the actresses like Joan Collins he squired about town;  Ehrenreich might be another aspect of Beatty as a youngster on the make, keen to impress mentors like Jean Renoir and George Stevens;  the motif of father and son takes a whole meta leap in his casting Ashley Hamilton, a Beatty lookalike who might well be his son (I think this is an inside joke, as it were), as a Hughes stand-in;  the dig at Beatty’s own rep for having a satyr-like lifestyle with the quickie Hughes has with Marla which deflowers her after she’s had her first taste of alcohol. It’s just inescapable. And if that seems distasteful, Beatty is 80 playing 50, and it has a ring of farce about it, as does much of the film which telescopes things like Hughes’ crash in LA for dramatic effect and plays scenes like they’re in a screwball comedy. There’s a lovely visual joke when he orders Frank to drive him somewhere at 3AM and they sit and eat fast food (after Frank says a prayer) and eventually we see where they’re seated – in front of Hughes’ enormous aeroplane (and Frank has never flown). This is too funny to merit the lousy reviews and too invested in its own nostalgia to be a serious take on either Hollywood or Hughes but it has its points of interest as another variation on the myth of both subjects. In real life it was long rumoured that Hughes had a son by Katharine Hepburn who allegedly had him adopted at the end of the Thirties. Timewise it picks up somewhere after The Aviator ends, but not strictly so. All it shares with that film is the banana leaf wallpaper. Tonally, it’s shifting from one generic mode to another (all that Mahler from Death in Venice is pointing to tragedy and age and decay, not youth and beauty and promise) but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s extremely well cast: Collins is terrific as the gauche naive young woman in the big city who’s given up her music scholarship and Ehrenreich is very good as the ambitious and conflicted guy who wants a mentor; Matthew Broderick does well as Levar, the senior driver jaded by long years of service to this eccentric and Oliver Platt (who did the great Bulworth with Beatty twenty years ago) has fun in a small role but Candice Bergen is wasted in the role of Nadine, the office manager. Bening is really great as Mrs Mabrey but she just … disappears. Beatty plays Hughes sympathetically, even unflatteringly (he knew him, albeit very slightly) and these young people’s relationship is ultimately played for its future potential despite its signposting as evidence of the hypocrisy lying directly beneath a church-led society. Written by Beatty with a story credit to him and Bo Goldman, and directed by Beatty, his first film in two decades.

Blind (2017)

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We’re all just trying to get home I suppose. Suzanne Dutchman (Demi Moore) seems to be a happily married trophy wife. Her husband Mark (Dylan McDermott) is a wolf of Wall Street. At a dinner party Mark speaks to his client Howard (James McCaffrey) who is then caught by an undercover female agent for using and dealing cocaine and does a deal for immunity in exchange for information on Mark’s insider dealing. Mark is then arrested and Suzanne is facing charges and she is sentenced to 100 hours of community service.  She begins reading for visually impaired Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) a famous one-hit-wonder author and now a writing professor who is guilt-ridden over his wife’s death in the car crash that blinded him.  They take an instant dislike to each other. But she can’t leave and he needs someone to read his student’s work to him. During her time with Bill, Suzanne develops feelings for him and also finds out about her husband’s affair which leans her towards Bill even more… This is carried mostly by star power by three very likeable performes – although McDermott’s violence is foreshadowed in his presentation of a diamond necklace to his wife in the first scene, as though he’s imprisoning her. We understand the title isn’t just about Oakland, it also serves as a metaphor for Suzanne’s entrapment, blind to her husband’s flaws – and they become very problematic indeed. Her massive wedding ring also signifies the situation – writ large in the first scene with Oakland. Her arrival supplants volunteer Gavin (Steven Prescod) who is really a superfan looking to get into Oakland’s writing class – but even when he takes the job of houseboy he takes advantage and makes off with Oakland’s unfinished second novel. This is really a story about writer’s block, and then some. It has some lovely visuals and interactions but lags a bit in pacing. Still, it’s nice to see these actors who don’t get in front of the cameras enough, as far as I’m concerned. Based on a story by Diane Fisher, this was adapted by John Buffalo Mailer (who also acts here) and directed by Michael Mailer, sons of that very pugnacious writer, Norman.

 

Logan (2017)

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You know, Logan… this is what life looks like. A home, people who love each other. Safe place. You should take a moment and feel it. It’s 2029 and a badly aged, heavy drinking and very weary Logan (Hugh Jackman) cares for an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) at a remote outpost on the Mexican border. His plan to hide from the outside world gets upended when he meets Laura a young mutant (Dafne Keen) who is very much like him and was created in a lab by Alkali-Transigen who now want her back: their IVF-bred young mutants are not responding as expected and some of them have free will – and feelings. Logan must now protect the girl and battle the dark forces that want to capture her as they are hunted down by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) on behalf of mad scientist Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) who fools Caliban (Stephen Merchant) into giving his friends away. What Logan hasn’t reckoned on is his seed having been used to make a copy – of him …  Adapted by Scott Frank and Michael Green and director James Mangold from the Wolverine comic books by Roy Thomas, Len Wein and John Romita Sr. This is elegant filmmaking – a strange claim perhaps to make about one of the most brutal and violent films you’ll ever see (heads actually roll) but it’s truer in spirit to adult-oriented comic books as per Frank Miller than anything else you’ve seen in this vein. It’s performed brilliantly by an almost perfect cast and the clips from Shane which X watches with Laura in their hotel room are a very fine metaphor for what happens, a kind of honourable suicide, for the future and the greater good. It really is the only decent superhero movie I’ve seen in years.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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Kong’s a pretty good king. Keeps to himself, mostly. This is his home, we’re just guests. But you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs, unless you’re picking a fight. Scientists, soldiers and adventurers unite to explore a mythical, uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. Cut off from everything they know, they venture into the domain of the mighty Kong, igniting the ultimate battle between man and nature. As their mission of discovery soon becomes one of survival, they must fight to escape from a primal world where humanity does not belong. Tom Hiddleston is Conrad, the British Special Forces op (retired!) hired by monster hunter Bill Randa (John Goodman) who’s finagled money for the expedition from a disbelieving Senator. Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Col. Preston Packard, in charge of a special chopper squadron chomping at the bit for a final military excursion. Brie Larson is Mason Weaver (hmm…..) a photographer and anti-war activist. She’s there for the Pulitzer. This is one last op for Nam vets who ain’t too happy at ‘abandoning’ a losing war. A man who believes in monsters. A Bermuda Triangle-type of island where God didn’t get to finesse His creations. Set in 1973, ie the Vietnam era and just before the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges of the wonderful 1933 classic, this is a kind of gung-ho Apocalypse Now retread with extra monsters and gore. Yeah, right:  if you thought Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) was a gorilla. And there’s more than that because Marlow is played by John C. Reilly and he’s a soldier who’s been hanging on the island for nearly 30 years waiting to be rescued and he knows that Kong is in fact their only hope in this island that is hollow at the centre – and Kong needs to win the turf war against some incredibly frightening creatures who are even worse to humans than he is! So this plugs into modern myths too – all those Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands not aware WW2 ended long ago. The character of Marlow narrates all of Joseph Conrad’s books, including Heart of Darkness, establishing the framing story. Hmm, now you’re talking. With a horrible, unlikeable cast (what is it these days? Why are actors so yucky?) and a screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly you might think at some point someone would have pulled the plug or cast people empathetic enough for an audience to perhaps care if they survive an encounter with a gorilla minding his own business in his own home. Nope. They had to do it. They went there. But it is saved by the built-in snark (okay, self-awareness) that is a de facto part of all action blockbusters nowadays, reflecting from early exchanges in the dialogue the knowledge that the monster is …. us.  Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist till you’re looking for them.  There’s a very high body count and the romance is at a minimum but it looks dazzling and moves quickly – even with a little jungle stealth and camouflage. This takes no prisoners – it eats them. I blame the parents. Golly! Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

The Boss Baby (2017)

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He carries a briefcase! Does no one else think that’s, oh, I don’t know, a little freaky? A new baby’s arrival impacts a family, told from the point of view of a delightfully unreliable narrator the wildly imaginative 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi). The unusually verbal Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) arrives at Tim’s home in a taxi, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. The instant sibling rivalry must soon be put aside when Tim discovers that Boss Baby is actually a spy on a secret mission, and only he can help thwart a dastardly plot that involves an epic battle between puppies and babies… This is simultaneously inventive, overdone, funny and draining,with a serious dip in energy round about the hour mark but it picks up by the end. Is anyone else as tired of endlessly gee-whizz-flash computer-generated animation as I am? At least there’s a nice use of The Beatles’  Blackbird in the story. Adapted from Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book by Michael McCullers and directed by Tom McGrath. And yes, Bakshi is the grandson of the incredible Ralph. Sigh.

Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn (2016)

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He was so important for somebody who never made himself noticed. The mystery behind actor/director Leslie Howard’s death on Flight 777 out of Lisbon in 1943 is the framing story for this highly personal documentary. Far from being an English gentleman, he was the son of Anglicised Jew Lilian Blumenberg and her Hungarian Jewish husband Ferdinand Steiner. Her family so disapproved of the match that he was reared in Vienna speaking German before they were accepted and returned to London. Early success on the London stage made him turn to cinema, which he preferred, setting up his own production company which lost money on four comedies, leading him to Broadway where he became an instant success and the matinee idol du jour. He took roles in Hollywood including in Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul opposite a young Clark Gable whom he didn’t think much of – and nine years later, during which he became a superstar back in British films, they were reunited on the set of Gone With the Wind when Gable was the King of Hollywood and Howard felt he was miscast as Ashley Wilkes, the English gentleman as the Southern gentleman. His backing of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Duke Mantee which he played on Broadway for the adaptation of The Petrified Forest led to a long friendship and Bogart named his daughter in Howard’s honour. The start of WW2 exercised his conscience greatly and he not only made films dedicated to the war effort (because Britain was in it alone for the first couple of years by and large) he spoke out on radio and started directing himself. This is an enormously intimate piece of work – it features several excerpts from interviews with his daughter Leslie Ruth whom he adored and gave up his proposed marriage to Merle Oberon when the actress disliked the little girl. He had a string of affairs but a steady homelife with his wife and children kept him stable. This is simply overflowing with amazing archive footage including home movies and there are telling interviews with colleagues such as Michael Powell and Norman Spencer, his assistant director.  It is narrated by an extraordinary individual, Derek Partridge, the little boy (and son of a Government agent), now a presenter, who gave up his seat for Howard on that fateful flight when at least four other passengers were valuable targets for the Germans. This is a compelling film, written and directed by Thomas Hamilton with a beautiful score by Maria Antal.

Table 19 (2017)

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I can smell the toilets from here, that’s how well we know the bride and groom. Ex-maid of honor Eloise (Anna Kendrick) has been relieved of her duties at her best friend and prospective sister-in-law’s wedding after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man Teddy (Wyatt Russsell) via text. She decides to hold her head up high and attend her friend’s wedding anyway. She finds herself seated at the ‘random’ table in the back of the ballroom with a disparate group of strangers, most of whom should have known to just send regrets (but not before sending something nice off the registry). Jerry and Bina Kepp (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow) are Facebook friends with the groom’s father and own a chain of diners; high-schooler Renzo Eckberg (Tony Revolori) whose parents are acquaintances of the groom and who came to the wedding in the hopes of meeting a girl; Jo Flanagan (June Squibb) Francie’s childhood nanny; and Walter Thimble (Stephen Merchant) the bride’s cousin who is currently on parole after serving time for (being tricked into) stealing $125,000 from his uncle’s company – by his uncle. The table debates whether table 19 is a “good table” to which Eloise responds that before getting dumped she planned half the wedding and knows for a fact that table 19 is for “guests that should have known not to show up.” She kisses a gorgeous guy called Huck (not his real name, obvs) (Thomas Cocquerel – maybe not his real name either?!) who turns out to be a wedding crasher – from another wedding. And the groom! As everyone’s secrets are revealed, Eloise learns a thing or two from the denizens of Table 19. Friendships – and even a little romance – can happen under the most unlikely circumstances… This started life as a Duplass Brothers film but the studio hired Jeffrey Blitz to rewrite and direct it and it doesn’t bode well and it doesn’t start well. But somehow  – and despite some of the cast who shall remain nameless – it gets a little better as it goes along. Maybe it’s because we’ve all regretted the inconvenience and outrageous expense of attending Other People’s Terrible Weddings and even fantasised about creating the kind of chaos that happens here – or maybe it’s just the writing which deepens the superficial schadenfreude of the protagonists as they figure they really weren’t supposed to be there. And it’s set on an island so everyone has to wait for the ferry to leave – maybe a little ‘reality’ TV reference, eh? Not entirely terrible after all.