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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GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

Superstar (1999)

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I realise that not all SNL knockoffs are passable but this one makes me laugh like a drain. Molly Shannon is orphaned Irish-American Catholic high schooler Mary Katherine Gallagher, a bespectacled geek in love with Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell), the dreamboat – wow! – and dreaming of, yup, superstardom. Mary’s the rewind girl in the video store and she’s obsessed with TV movies which provide a lot of her best lines – maybe the most apposite coming from Portrait of a Teenage Centerfold! (starring Lori Singer).[If this in fact exists…]  She’s relegated to the class for retards and befriends fellow loser Helen (Emmy Laybourne). She attracts the attention of Slater (Harland Williams) the mute rebel biker newcomer to the school which provides more backstory and permits her Id’s vision of Jesus to pay him a visit at this movie’s version of a crossroads. She tries to achieve her ambitions by competing in a talent show for VD (‘with an opportunity to appear as an extra in a Hollywood movie with Positive Moral Values’). Sky’s cheerleader girlfriend – the most beautiful, the most popular, the most bulimic – Evian Graham (Elaine Hendrix) is her main rival but wheelchair-bound Grandma (Glynis Johns) doesn’t want Mary to take part. The scene where she tells Mary the truth behind her parents’ death is screamingly funny – they weren’t eaten by sharks but stomped to death Riverdance-style. Reader, I howled. She and Sky both think The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the 19th-best TVM and when he and Evian split she spots an opening…This high school movie parody is for that special person in your life – your irrepressible inner gummy child! The perfect comedic holiday comedown. Written by Steve Koren and directed by Bruce McCulloch. Shannon is great. In fact, she’s a Superstar!

Spotlight (2015)

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A tough story well told. Maybe there are those who would decry the eulogising of journalists doing their job – but as we learn, there were incredible pressures on their doing precisely nothing in order for an easy life in a city (Boston) run by Irish Catholics who apparently sanctioned child abuse on a grand scale (plus ca change). For people like myself whose home is a virtual archive of index cards, notepads, files, folders and reference books, there’s a lot of comfort to be had from the procedural side, which dominates the narrative. The ensemble works perfectly with give and take from everyone and Rachel McAdams’ clothes look like they were in my wardrobe at some point. A different story from All the President’s Men but no less effective with tension ratcheting on a human scale especially the ‘whodunnit’ (or didn’t) at the newspaper HQ itself ten years earlier when they had the opportunity.  I didn’t know Ben Bradlee Jr. managed the Globe at the time – effectively then, John Slattery is Jason Robards Jr Jr. An excellent film. Kudos to all but especially the writers, actor/writer/director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. This could have been prurient but is measured and sane and decent – unlike the criminal perpetrators who are still shamelessly among us, even with their dog collars covered up. (6% rape children, 60% are in sexual relationships.) The coda is stunning.

Finian’s Rainbow (1968)

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This adaptation by a young Francis Ford Coppola of the Broadway musical works mainly because of the songs. Why wouldn’t we all want to uproot from Glocca Morra like Finian and Sharon and Look to the Rainbow in Missitucky USA? Underrated and a lot of fun, especially if you like leprechauns. Definitely the end of an era.

Black Mass (2015)

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This has all the ingredients of a great gangster movie:  three childhood friends (in fact two brothers and a friend) grow up in South Boston to become an FBI agent, a state senator and … Whitey Bulger, the notorious gangster. He’s offered a deal to take down the Mafia and … everyone gets tainted. This is missing a few story beats which would have made it a classic but the real performance here is by Joel Edgerton as the agent. And what’s truly astonishing is … IT’S ALL TRUE. Wow.