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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The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1953)

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A beautiful blonde angel (Diane Cilento) arrives in The Angel, Islington on a goodwill mission to soften the heart of pawnbroker Joshua Webman (Felix Aylmer). To raise money for her earthly mission, she pawns her harp for £20 and declares her love for the shop assistant Len (Philip Guard) who is immediately taken with her. She shows the people she encounters the path down which their happiness lies, whilst winning at the dogs and dodging pickpockets (Alfie Bass and Thomas Gallagher) and tries to improve people’s economic situations (pretty dire at the time) and puts couples together. This is a fairly typical British film of its post-WW2 era, blending elements of sentiment and whimsy with social realism (but you could take issue with the way that Jewish characters are represented). There are some nice visual touches – my favourite occurs when Bass gets planted in a birdcage during a foiled burglary. This was adapted by Charles Terrot from his novel and TV play with Sidney Cole and directed by Alan Bromly. Quite charming, with Cilento immensely impressive as the naive visitor in one of her earliest appearances, really becoming the Angel of Islington. There’s a pleasant score by Antony Hopkins.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

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This is not going to go the way you think. The showdown between the rebels and the First Order led by Snoke (Andy Serkis) is underway. Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes to Ahch-To to find out from Luke (Mark Hamill) what happened between him and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) and recruit him. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is injured in combat so someone has to take over the bridge and it’s not going to be Poe (Oscar Isaac) because he just ordered a bombing that will cost them too much. Finn (John Boyega) and a new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) figure out they need to get a code to break into the Order’s ability to track the fleet. Luke teaches Rey to tap into her powers but it’s Kylo Ren who gets into her head …How did anyone get the idea to hire Rian Johnson to both write and direct this difficult second album? The guy who made Brick (not as good as Veronica Mars) and Looper (entirely predictable from the tricksy go)? Whoever they are, they deserve a raise. This takes all the series’ tropes, turns them around, gives them a shake and never quits from the get-go which commences at a gallop. Maybe you’ll quibble about the turn to the dark side (and particularly the changes to Luke’s character) but there’s a traditional inevitability about this Freudian epic which Johnson plays on in order to clear the path for new people. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer – especially when one ogre dies and an old-timer reappears. Time to let old things go. Wildly exciting. Oh my goodness! When’s the next show?! RIP Princess Carrie.

The Good Die Young (1954)

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All the good boys died in the war. Or should have done. Four men are sitting in a car – about to carry out a heist. Flashback to each of their journeys to this point: Mike (Stanley Baker) is a boxer who has had to give up the fight and needs to find a job. He injures himself and is discovered to have been fighting with a broken hand which is amputated. He discovers his wife Angela (Rene Ray) has given away the thousands he’s saved to start a shop – to the police on behalf of her brother who skipped bail so the money Mike won in the worst circumstances possible is gone and he is now crippled.  Joe (Richard Basehart) is a former GI married to Mary (Joan Collins) who’s desperate to return to NYC to get work but his wife is under the cosh of her bullying mother (Freda Jackson) who stages a fake suicide attempt just as they’re boarding at Heathrow. Eddie (John Ireland) is an American flyer gone AWOL whose actress wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is carrying on with yet another affair. ‘Rave’ Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey) is an aristocrat and a scoundrel with massive gambling debts, an older and mostly tolerant wife Eve (Margaret Leighton) and a father (Robert Morley) who despises him. He’s the charismatic lure who preys on the others’ desperation and corrupts them into carrying out a Post Office robbery and the aftermath is tense, bloody and awful …  Featuring a superlative performance as a psycho by the great Harvey, some terrific acting by the women, Richard Macauley’s novel of the same name was adapted by Vernon Harris and director Lewis Gilbert and transposed to London where the post-war smog and gloom contribute untold amounts in a tale of some crime but mostly punishment. Quite riveting Brit noir, directed with a great eye by Gilbert.

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

Esther Waters (1948)

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Esther Waters (Kathleen Ryan) is the maid at a big house where she is seduced by handsome footman William Latch (Dirk Bogarde) – but when he disappears with another woman Esther finds herself pregnant. She leaves for home but her mother is dead and she gives birth alone in a workhouse in Lambeth. Returning to service her childminder offers to kill her baby boy Jackie for a fiver. A kindly policeman helps her and then she meets a nice vicar, Fred (Cyril Cusack) who romances her. When William spots her on a tram however she allows him see her now six-year old son.  He’s a bookmaker with his ex long gone after his forays in Europe. Fred wants to marry her but she protests I’m a woman too and we know her sexual desire for William is overwhelming. It’s quite a moment in a British film of the era. She and William marry and she has to get over her disdain for his profession of gambling – until he falls mortally ill and she must enter the world of risk. The first section of the story is quite visually inventive with a particularly nice moment happening in silhouette. Bogarde is an excellent and louche romantic lead in his first such role. Then it descends into a social problem tract as Esther gets the Dickensian treatment in the city after her abandonment. Their reunion is as a fairly average married couple when he purveys his business – until medical issues twist everything … So the film both in terms of content and style works naturalism and melodrama into the fashion of the post-war period.  Ryan is very good in a complex role, never turning on the tears despite her desperation but it really works best when that attractive man Bogarde is front and centre. There’s a terrific climax at the Derby.  Adapted from George Moore’s novel by Michael Gordon and William Rose with additional dialogue by Gerard Tyrrell. Directed by Ian Dalyrymple and Peter Proud.

Indecent Proposal (1993)

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The dress is for sale. I’m not. Adrian Lyne’s films have always pushed zeitgeist buttons and this is no different. High school sweethearts David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) are now an architect and realtor respectively but are in trouble with their mortgage payments and obliged to borrow to try and keep going while he wants to design his dream house on a tract in Santa Monica. They bring the last of their savings to Vegas and blow it all trying to win big. She’s eyeballed by billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) and helps him get a million on roulette. He offers them the same amount if she’ll spend the night with him. The aftermath of their decision costs them – everything. This tacky premise is actually the basis for a film which deals with two big romantic ideas – a grown up couple who truly love each other and risk everything to achieve a long-held dream, and an older man who has everything he could want but still holds fast to the memory of a girl who smiled at him on a train thirty years ago and he’s forced to live with regret every day since. Sure it pushes buttons but it also deals in feelings and the limits of love and sacrifice and the difference between sex and a long lasting relationship. There are wonderful supporting performances by Oliver Platt as David’s lawyer friend and Seymour Cassel as Gage’s wise driver. Amy Holden Jones adapted the novel by Jack Engelhard and the score is by John Barry. A grand romantic drama which looks as gorgeous as you expect from Mr Lyne and there’s a great dog! PS does anyone know if the 2CV with the licence plate 209 LYN is the director’s?!

The Other Love (1947)

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I’m tired of resting, tired of sleeping, tired of lying in the sun. Celebrated concert pianist Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes seriously ill and is ordered to a Swiss sanitorium for some R&R where resident medical expert Dr Anthony  Stanton (David Niven) is unimpressed with her desire to socialise, particularly when she’s being squired around nightclubs and casinos down in Monte Carlo by suave racing driver Paul Clermont (Richard Conte). When she returns from a night on the town and sees her friend Celestine (Joan Lorring ) being removed on a gurney – dead – she realises she’s in real trouble and this is not a holiday. To complicate everyone’s plans a croupier (Gilbert Roland) has designs on her, leading to a very unpleasant late night encounter on the street… An old-fashioned romantic drama with added Alps, torchlit skiing and roulette. Adapted from a story by Erich Maria Remarque, it’s oddly compelling principally on account of Stanwyck who is always intense, even when she’s a victim of consumption. She rehearsed three hours a day for a month to get the piano pieces matched correctly to recordings by Ania Dorfman and did her own stunts on location. Directed by Andre De Toth, who shot the mountain scenes at Mount Wilson, near LA. Not Switzerland. Made for independent company Enterprise with a screenplay by Ladislas Fodor and Harry Brown, this is a bittersweet tale that might have needed a more finessed touch.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

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The second of Guy Hamilton’s outings as director (he did four altogether) this is James Bond verging on self-parody and hugely entertaining it is too. Sean Connery returns looking the worse for middle age. At the heart of it is some strange goings-on in the diamond market leading our favourite spy to Amsterdam (via Hovercraft!) where he encounters the smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St John, the first American Bond girl). It seems evil criminal mastermind Blofeld (Charles Gray) is up to his old tricks, this time stocking up to use a killer satellite. Touching on real-life themes of nuclear weaponry, strong women (look at those bodyguards! Never mind Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole!), cloning and plastic surgery, the American obsession with death (pace Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh) leading to some hilarious (kinda – unless you’re keen to be in a coffin) scenes in a mortuary and great use of Las Vegas locations, this is also the one with those fabulously fey henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd ( Bruce Glover  and  Putter Smith) and there’s an ending straight out of Road Runner. As close to a cartoon as Bond would ever get,  you’ll have forgotten that Bond is out to avenge the murder of his wife (in OHMSS) in the first few minutes: this is simply great entertainment. And what about that song! Adapted from Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.