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 First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

Collateral Beauty (2016)

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A bereaved advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) can’t get it together so his colleagues get together and decide that his letters to Death, Time and Love should be personified by actors to persuade him back to work so they can get their wage increases. In other words they try to make him think he’s living in a Hollywood fantasy circa 1942, a time when people really had something to worry about. Meanwhile one of his colleagues is dying and dealing with it manfully. When Howard meets a woman at a bereavement counselling session who’s grieving her six-year old daughter’s death from cancer he doesn’t realise she’s his wife. That’s the big reveal. This horrifying disquisition on the examined life is as refreshing as acid rain and another example of the bewildering spiral of decrepitude that Smith’s career has become. Another reason for him to boycott the Oscars, no doubt. Preserve us all from such contemptuous mindlessness. Those letters to the Universe? Keep them to yourself. Written by Allan Loeb and directed by David Frankel.

Split (2017)

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We are what we believe we are. Mental patient Kevin (James McAvoy) knocks out the abusive uncle of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and kidnaps her and her two friends, taking them to a basement where he holds them captive. Various of his 23 personalities materialise and the girls try to play the kinder ones to make their escape. However his complex psychiatric issues are revealed in various visits to his analyst Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who realises too late there is a 24th personality that her cack-handed empowering therapy has inadvertently caused to be released and just when the girls were about to get away … This feels a lot like M. Night Shyamalan, that late 90s auteurist who fell foul of his own concepts since approximately The Lady in the Water, decided to use a medical scenario to give that profitable Noughties rape/torture porn trope a workout with a psycho(logical) horror bent, filtered through our collective memories of the great Manhunter. Or something like that. Being the filmmaker he is, he structures it very well, using the backstory of Kevin’s various personalities as they materialise in front of Fletcher to give us a break from what we fear he is doing to the girls in captivity. And there are flashbacks to some very nasty experiences in Casey’s childhood. It has a grimy look which is probably what it should have, given its mostly underground setting. There’s a twist to the end which finally brings us back to the Universe the auteur created, oh, years ago, if you care that much. Not my bag, actually. I don’t like seeing girls raped or eaten even if you’re blaming it on paranoid schizophrenia or whatever you’ve chosen from the medical dictionary as a rationale to get your career back on track. Bald baby-faced McAvoy is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Call me picky. Go on, I dare you. And step away from the therapist!

The Accountant (2016)

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I have no idea how to interpret why people do what they do. That makes two of us, bub. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is the autistic number cruncher working out of a strip mall south of Chicago. But he’s being hunted down by a T-man (JK Simmons) whose pursuit has some personal impetus. Is it possible that Wolff – who likes target practice – is laundering money for the Mob? And is a decent hitman to boot? There are flashbacks to a troubled child whose mom walks out and whose military dad takes him and his brother all over the world to learn fight techniques. When Christian is hired to look at the books of a robotics technology firm run by Lamar Blackburn  (John Lithgow) his mathematical genius uncovers a plot nobody thought he would uncover and the eccentric accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) at the firm could wind up as collateral damage as a string of hits is carried out. There’s a hard man Brax (Jon Bernthal) who is being deployed to off awkward embezzlers – and is currently including Christian in his sights. … What a weird idea. An autistic assassin-accountant. And yet the DNA of this is so tightly wound around parallel plots – the psychodrama of a mentally ill child genius combined with a government hunt for money launderers and it gets tighter as  it progresses. Bonkers, with an astutely cast Affleck (line readings were never his thing) in a thriller like no other. Adding up, with more bodies. That’s mental illness for ya. If you can see the end coming you are a better man than I. You might even BE a man. Written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I see dead people. How extraordinary is this film? A truly scary ghost story – even all these years later when you know the amazing twist at its centre. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is the child psychologist treating troubled Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). The son of a single mother (Toni Collette), he’s a kid whose weirdness marks him out amongst his schoolfriends leading to bullying and strange injuries. Halfway through the story he tells the extremely sympathetic Malcolm his dark secret – and he knows that Malcolm just doesn’t get it. A stunning exposition of death, bereavement, grief, sorrow, the problem with acceptance and some punishing home truths, this is augmented by totally believable, realistic performances. A really audacious and cunning piece of work by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

The Evening Star (1996)

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Aka Three Funerals and a Wedding. Just kidding. Well, not exactly. I didn’t love Terms of Endearment and have read neither of these novels about willful selfish Houston widow Aurora Greenway but this messy ragtag followup directed by Robert Harling is not without its charms. Shirley MacLaine is back, aged grandmother and parent to her late daughter’s tearaway grownup children, irritated by longtime housekeeper gimlet-eyed Rose (Marion Ross) and pined after by General Hector (Donald Moffat). Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is living at home but itching to get out and she shacks up with bozo Bruce (Scott Wolf) which of course ends badly – but in LA, which is not so bad, as it turns out. Tommy (George Newbern) is in prison and Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is married to a tramp and they have a bad-mannered toddler son. Rose plots to get Aurora to therapist Jerry (the late, great Bill Paxton) who has a thing for her – mostly because as she eventually finds out she’s a dead ringer for his Vegas showgirl mom, which doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Aurora’s rival Patsy (Miranda Richardson) which has a great conclusion in an inflight catfight.  The relationship with Paxton is funny and lifts the whole show with MacLaine getting some choice lines especially when she finally meets his mother! There’s a lot of life, love and thwarted passion as Aurora seeks out the great love of her life – and eventually finds it in the arms of her disastrously unaccomplished family while some of those closest to her die. There is a distinct shift of tone when Garret Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) pays a visit in the last quarter hour but the big performances make this, with MacLaine really making it work. You might be surprised to learn that it’s Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer who is wooed by Newbern. This was Ben Johnson’s last film and it’s dedicated to him – he was of course in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show where he delivered a performance of incredible subtlety and affect:  not bad for a stuntman. There’s more than a hint of Cloris Leachman in Marion Ross’s performance here. Not a bad recommendation in a film which looks at some of life’s different stages and comes out in favour of them all, by and large. Written by McMurtry and Harling.