Film review – Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin, 2018)

Aaron Sorkin is a name familiar to many film lovers. Having achieved fame with big screen screenplays for the likes of A Few Good Men, The Social Network and Moneyball, his knack of taking complex plots and working his magic to weave something not only palatable but positively gripping gave him unquestionable renown in the industry. He’s also transferred his skills to great television series, most notably with the multi-award-winning political drama The West Wing.

It was with some surprise that I discovered he would be making his directorial debut with underground gambling syndicate drama Molly’s Game. It wasn’t the content of the film that was surprising, more the fact he hadn’t yet directed a film. How could he have a career spanning four decades and not be tempted to direct any of his fantastic screenplays? And what tempted him to make this story his first?

MOLLY'S GAME

The titular character Molly is Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier until a freak accident curtailed her career [1]. Moving from snowy Colorado to sunny Los Angeles, she spent time as a cocktail waitress before getting involved with a group of highly famous and well-off Hollywood celebrities and millionaires (here given false names), including Player X (Michael Cera), Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd), Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) and Cole (Joe Keery) [2]. First she works as a hostess for a weekly high-stakes gambling match, profiting primarily from the large tips she receives for her efforts. Later, she decides to take control and run her own, putting more at risk but with higher rewards.

The film depicts the build up to a court case following Molly’s arrest, with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) untangling her situation and the story told through a series of flashbacks, including the importance of her relationship with her father Larry (Kevin Costner), a professional clinical psychologist.

As expected, the film has a sharp screenplay from Sorkin, who makes sure there’s enough detail to keep the story believable without bamboozling poker novices. The film hovers around topics of sexism and gender imbalance, which makes it a perfectly-timed release, handling the ugly issues as openly as they deserve to be.

Crucially, he proves to be as good at directing as he is at writing. There are some excellent actors involved here, so emotionally-charged scenes involving Chastain and Costner, or Chastain and Elba, are almost bound to deliver (they do). It is the scenes with the lesser-experienced actors that really prove he’s delivered here. Most notably, the role Charie’s daughter Stellar (Whitney Peak) plays in revealing the nature of his character and how he analyses Molly is spot on, with a real camaraderie between Elba and Peak. He is harsh on her, setting her additional homework and relentlessly questioning her thoughts to ensure she is bettering herself.

It is a clear mirroring of Molly’s relationship with her father and brings out one of the most prominent themes of the film: the father-daughter relationship and how that impacts on the daughter in later life.

MOLLY'S GAME

The emotional crux of the film hangs on the final scene involving Costner and Chastain, with Larry providing his daughter with “three years of psychological therapy sessions in three minutes”. It’s simply a joy to watch unravel – two actors emotionally lost in the characters they are playing, completely understanding of what the scene means to the characters and fully committed to what’s happening. For all the successes Sorkin has managed in the sexiness, seediness and hopelessness of the gambling ring, it is this scene that leaves the biggest impact.

Sorkin lost his father around Christmas 2016 and it is clear that this was dear to his heart when he created this picture. The fathers here operate with an otherworldly integrity to make sure their children achieve the best in life. If that’s how Sorkin remembers his father, and the success of good parenting is judged by the successes of their children, then on this evidence Sorkin has more than done his father justice.

Molly’s Game is an excellent film that delivers in every department.

[1] Note: In reality, this is one of very few pieces of artistic licensing Sorkin has employed in his career. There was no freak accident, simply a decision by Molly that she wanted a new challenge. (http://time.com/5073577/true-story-mollys-game/)

[2] It is rumoured that the real celebrities involved in the poker games include Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Macauley Culkin, Pete Sampras, Matt Damon, Michael Baxter, Marc Lasrey and Alec Gores. (https://nypost.com/2011/07/10/the-queen-of-secret-celeb-poker/)

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Film review – Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017)

 

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame was one of the leading stars of Hollywood’s film noir era. With a film career that spanned the 1940s to the 1970s, she enjoyed commercial and critical success for her varied roles, including the seductive Violet Bick in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), her Oscar-nominated role as Ginny Tremaine in Crossfire (1947), headstrong neighbour Laurel Gary in In A Lonely Place (1950) and the shallow Rosemary Bartlow in The Bad and The Beautiful (1957), the latter of which earned her an Academy Award win.

In 1974, Gloria had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Following successful treatment, the cancer went into remission.

By 1978, she had relocated to Liverpool to work on a play, co-habiting with a young man named Peter Turner, who was just 26-years-old. It was Turner with whom she formed an unlikely romance and ended up having a relationship with him that lasted until the end of her life.

Grahame was 57 when she died in October 1981.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

An adaptation of Peter Turner’s book of the same title, the film covers the final two years of Grahame’s life, spent largely in Liverpool, and less so in Manhattan, as she played out this romantic relationship with Turner. It is at turns baffling and equally heartbreaking that a woman who had once lived next door to Lauren Becall and Humphrey Bogart would end her life in a small council house in Liverpool, far from the glamorous life she so obviously thrived on in her earlier years.

One of the most important aspects of a believable romantic film is the chemistry between those portraying the central characters. Jamie Bell and Annette Bening have it in buckets, never once failing to be brilliantly convincing. Whether it’s the scene in which she spontaneously instigates a spot of disco dancing in her spacious flat, or casually and flintily orders a pint at the local pub as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, it is clear the are completely at ease with one another.

Benning paints a frustrated picture of Grahame. Her angry response at Turner suggesting she is older than she believed she was is jarring and unexpected and reveals a lot about her character. She may have delivered a memorably-celebrated performance as Ado Annie in the blockbuster musical Oklahoma! in 1955, but she felt too old for the part even at the age of 32 (the part typically demands an actress around ten years younger than this’d she was just two years younger than James Whitmore who portrayed her fathering the film). Her continued desire to have relationships with younger men may be viewed as untoward in the current climate, but it was perhaps indicative that she simply saw herself as younger than she was and unable to accept that she was ageing.

But this is a subtle and developing romance. Peter enters the relation naively, discovering more about the woman he loves as time progresses. There’s a memorable scene where he goes to watch a Grahame picture at a retrospective at a local arthouse cinema, which reveals to him just how successful she was. Later on, the heartbreaking scene as she reads Shakespeare on an empty stage with Turner – thus fulfilling a lifelong dream – is one that really packs an emotional punch.

The attention to detail on the scenery and props is exemplary, invoking the 1980s era perfectly. It’s easy to portray a caricature of the 1980s in anything set there, but this feels as miserable and as outdated as you’d expect a port town in 1981 to feel.

The soundtrack goes some way to furthering this overall impression. Tracks from Elvis Costello, A Taste of Honey and Elton John add to the sense of the age. There is also a beautifully wistful new composition from Elvis Costello titled “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way”, which is surely a strong contender for an Oscar nomination this year.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a beautiful and heartbreaking film with some strong performances and a final result that makes it one of the best dramas of the year.

Film review – Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

Michael Haneke’s latest picture is a twisted look into the wealthiest ways of living in the north of France, as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family hell-bent on self-destruction. A mixture of humour and satire litters the script to create a solid effort that, despite its best efforts, fails to deliver the same impact as the most dedicated of Haneke fans would hope for.

The film opens with a slow series of voyeuristic shots through the camera phone of 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), transmitting through a social media platform that looks similar to Snapchat. We see her murder her pet hamster and then, in the final shot, we see her unconscious mother, whilst an overlay of text chat show young Eve admitting she has poisoned her.

In the next shot we see the CCTV footage of a construction site where a huge disaster occurs, critically injuring one of the employees. It is in the aftermath of these two opening gambits that the rest of the film hangs its developing intertwining plots.

We later find out that this workplace accident was due to negligence at the hands of site supervisor and alcoholic Pierre Laurent (Franz Rogowski), whilst firm owner Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) is left to pick up the pieces and deal with an impending lawsuit. Eve is now living with this family in a large mansion in Calais, along with depressed grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The ironically-titled Happy End is a good film, but not a great one. The cast is substantial and the dialogue is sharp, but somehow the plot doesn’t feel like it takes us on a journey with enough of the characters. It’s more of a satirical social commentary piece rather than a meaty piece of fiction, with too many of the characters used as fodder for the main characters.

Trintignant and Huppert reunite here with Haneke after the successes of 2012’s Amour, a film that won the Best Picture Academy Award and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is clear why Haneke was so keen to work with them both again. They don’t share much screen time together, but with the former’s desire to end his life and the latter desperate to keep the dysfunctional family together and presentable, there is enough to go on to maintain the interest. With the addition of the young Harduin to the cast, this triangle of strength is enough to carry the film.

It could be argued that Toby Jones’s inclusion is on the cynical side. His role is very minor, though his prominence in the advertising campaign will undoubtedly have helped ticket sales in the UK, a place where his acting credentials need no introduction – least of all in the arthouse cinemas in which Happy End will play. If this is true, I don’t mind. It’s just smart advertising and a good way to carve out a niche in the market away from the impending Star Wars: The Last Jedi Release next week. For those of us who go to see more than the most mainstream of films, options and variety are required.

It feels unlikely that Happy End will repeat the award season successes enjoyed by many of his previous efforts, but it’s not without merit.

Film review – The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017

The moment lead character Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, has had enough of her landlord Bobby (the ever-brilliant Willem Dafoe) is a touch of genius. Her constant trouble-making, lack of responsibility for her own life and the conseqeut poor behaviour of her daughter has come to a head. Bobby counts to three, demanding she leaves his office. She relents, but as a parting shot removes the sanitary towel from her pants and slaps it on the glass window of the reception, punctuated by a flip of the middle finger in his direction.

It reveals a lot about her character. It’s one of the most disgusting visual moments of the cinematic year and (hopefully) goes far beyond the imagination of most viewers even on their worst of days.

That Bobby also shortly after is again protecting her from trouble beyond this action says a lot for his character too, presumably a reason Dafoe was attracted to the role. He delivers a typically nuanced performance. He’s rough and tough on the exterior, largely through necessity. Inside he is a man who clearly recognises the peril all his residents face – most are one missed payment away from homelessness and without any hope to get out of the predicament.

The film achieves what it aims to do, which is to shine a light on the horrific living conditions for many people living in Florida in the shadow of the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth”. Disney World’s original work-in-progress name was The Florida Project, though here the name is repurposed to represent the social housing slums of America, all too familiar to so many of the nation’s population.

The film takes the form of a series of vignettes, each showing another layer to the life of Halley and her daughter Moonie (Brooklynn Prince). Prince is as brilliant as she is irritating, her idea of hyjinx ranging from spitting on her neighbour’s car to burning down a disused house.

The plot is laced with humour throughout, and there were certainly some huge laugh-out-loud moments. But for all the laughter, there was an element of sadness and horror to think about how real these situations are.

The result is effective, though the overall sum feels less than the parts. By the end of the film it felt like it was dragging, meandering towards a final set piece that didn’t really feel as triumphant as the filmmakers had hoped. It’s a film that I wanted to like more than I did, but I just couldn’t get behind the characters enough to really allow myself to enjoy the film.

It’s an interesting but disappointing watch that is more thought-provoking than it is entertaining.

Film review – Insyriated (Philippe van Leeuw, 2017)

Philippe Van Leeuw May have taken a cheap shot with the title of this film, but the shallowness starts and ends there. It’s an imperfect but nonetheless powerful film that takes a gripping story and frames it within the resonatingly-threatening streets of the modern-day war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.

Inspired by a real anecdotal stories of people living in Damascus, the action takes place entirely within the confines of a small flat over a 24-hour period. Inside the flat lives the matriarchal Oum Yazan (Hiyam Abbass), a mother trying to keep her family together, alive and safe through the ongoing battles. Lodger Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud) is planning to escape from Damascus with her husband Samir (Moustapha Al Kar)) and newborn baby.

The story starts in earnest when housemaid Delhani (Juliette Navis) witnesses a sniper shooting Samir, who collapses in plain sight of one of the windows. Confiding in Oum Yazan, the pair decide to keep the shooting a secret to help maintain the peace inside the besieged flat.

It’s a powerful story no doubt, but its strengths are heightened by some excellent performances by the three central female characters. It is essentially a cross-analysis of how far people go to maintain their own lives and the lives of those they love.

Of the three central roles, none are better delivered than the performance given by the relatively unknown Diamand Bou Abboud. It is certainly the most substantial of the roles: they are relatively outcasts in the group, she has a newborn baby and wants to protect it, but is new to motherhood. It is one late scene when there are two intruders in the house that serves as one of the most memorable and horrific of the year, proving that what we don’t see on screen can be far more powerful that what we do see. It is a heartbreaking and sickening moment in the woman’s life and challenges the viewer to decide what they’d do in her shoes or in those of her cohabiters. Abboud really proves her acting mettle here.

There is little in the way of musical accompaniment in the film, and the cinematography is tough to view critically due to the filming style and confined location. These facts don’t detract from the overall impact, which is more about telling a powerful story than wowing the audience with an elaborate production. As Van Leeuw states in his production notes for the film, “there are no tricks, no special effects, it is just a plain look at the drama of the situation.” [1]

Historically, Arabic-language films have limited appeal at the global box office. True, there have been a number of success stories in recent years (notably Naji Abu Nowar’s 2014 drama ‘Theeb’, which took $774,556 globally [2][3]), but it doesn’t appear as though Insyriated has bucked the trend. Its inevitably sluggish performance at the UK box office (£10,706 from 19 arthouse theatres [4]) means that the film will have to perform well on home streaming platforms in order to recoup the money. Fortunately it is available now through Curzon On Demand and iTunes for the same price as a cheap cinema ticket, along with the standard DVD releases.

It’s not an outstandingly brilliant film, but it is in turns moving, horrific, heartbreaking, shocking and thought-provoking. A solid achievement by the Belgian director and the strong cast. It deserves an audience and will hopefully get that over the coming months.

Notes:

[1] https://curzonblob.blob.core.windows.net/media/6010/insyriated-production-notes.pdf

[2] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=theeb.htm

[3] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Theeb/United-Kingdom#tab=summary

[4] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Insyriated-(Lebanon)#tab=summary

Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is, simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.

Film review – Beyond the Clouds (Majid Majidi, 2017)

Majid Majidi’s latest film ‘Beyond The Clouds’ received its world premiere on Friday night at the pop-up Embankment Garden Cinema, specially created for the BFI London Film Festival. The director was in attendance to introduce this most brilliant and vibrant of films, alongside cast members Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan and several members of the crew.

The Mumbai-set tale centres around Aamir (Khatter, in his cinematic debut), a 19-year-old who is making a living of kinds by dealing drugs around the slums and docklands of the city. After a drugs bust leads to a chase with the police, Aamir winds up at the doorstep of his sister Tara (Mohanan). She attempts to protect her brother, but she ends up in prison herself. He must quickly learn to take responsibility to save his sister and their relationship.

In its opening shot, striking in its simplicity, we see the overarching message of the film. We see a busy but cleanly neat overpass, cars flying by. An unknown boy stands at the side of the road. A car pulls up and hands him a package. As we follow this mystery person as the camera pans down, the short one-shot focuses on our protagonist as he takes a package through into the underbelly of the divided city. It is an underbelly littered with street-bound families and forgotten people.

Whilst this separation of classes is made clear, it is a film, first and foremost, about the brother-sister relationship between our two main characters. It is about how they have let their close bond slip, leaving them with nothing but emotional wounds and lost memories of better times before the death of their parents.

Given that getting this chemistry right was such an important piece of the filmmaking puzzle, it seems like a risk that director Majidi cast two relatively unknown actors in the lead roles. Speaking in the Q&A after the film, director Majidi said: “The presence of superstars is crucial for most Indian films, and perhaps particularly in India with 2000 films produced every year. The audience is really keen to see their favourite actors on the screen. Despite the fact that there are so many superstars in India I asked the producers to let me cast people who’d never acted in front of a camera before. I was lucky they agreed to let me do that.”

The actors may not be superstars now but they are clearly destined for greatness, providing two absolutely astonishing debuts to form the backbone to the plot. Mohanan has enjoyed previous successes in Malayalami films, though this is Khatter’s debut. “The casting process was extremely long and we’re very lucky that both main actors come from acting families,” he added.

Lead actress Mohanan was forthcoming in her surprise at the fast turnaround from casting to appearing on set. “I came on set one week before we started filming. The process started and it was incredible… we had so many creative highs.” She is clearly visibly excited to have been given an opportunity by a truly well-respected director, though it didn’t affect her on set. “I don’t think it really hit me until the shoot was over. I had no time to take it in! It was incredible and the journey was so beautiful. So many of my scenes were so intense. I’d never done that before and I didn’t think i could do that.”

Actor Khatter was equally positive about the process, praising the method Majidi used to get the most out of the cast. “He didn’t want to give us time to develop the character. He’d rather we did it on set.”

The results are astonishing.

A. R. Rahman provides the score. Rahman previously worked with Majidi on the film ‘The Prophet Mohammad: The Messenger of God’. In the two years it took to complete that soundtrack, they grew to be close collaborators. The score for ‘Beyond The Clouds’ ebbs and flows, allowing the picture to breathe around it. It is never more apparent than the opening scene, bringing to life an introductory montage that explains fully the character Aamir and illuminating the dark corners of Mumbai that the visuals reveal.

There are several key scenes that use silhouettes, which prove to be a recurring theme and are used to portray contrasting emotional situations. Early in the film Aamir witnessed the trafficking of women through a silhouetted screen, bringing him suspicion. Later on there’s a powerful scene involving an arresting sexual assault on a woman that plays out behind hanging sheets. It’s a simple framing device that runs throughout the film and each shot is captured perfectly by director Majidi working alongside cinematographer Anil Mehta.

Beyond the Clouds is a wonderful film. At 58, Majidi is still taking huge risks that are paying off. The result is a raw and believable story that has plenty of heart and a powerful message. Simply a must see.