Molly’s Game

Everybody wants to be a filmmaker, or so it seems. Of course, actors making the move behind the camera has become common practice, but with Molly’s Game it is award-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin who has decided to try his hand at the directing caper. Having penned the likes of The Social Network, Moneyball and TV’s The West Wing, Sorkin is undeniably a talented writer, however the Sony email hack from 2014 also revealed that he is not the most enlightened individual, with leaked emails revealing that, at best, he is an arrogant ignoramus and, at worst, a misogynistic, racist clown. Given his disparaging comments about female actors, it certainly is interesting that Sorkin has opted for a film with a female lead as his directorial debut. Perhaps even more surprising is that the female lead in question is Jessica Chastain who, as an advocate for gender equality, has become one of the most outspoken voices against sexism in the entertainment industry. However, the fact that Sorkin may well be a douchebag of the highest order is largely irrelevant in evaluating his work and, with her story, former freestyle skiing champion Molly Bloom has gifted Sorkin a remarkable tale that has all the ingredients to make a captivating big screen drama. Unfortunately, Sorkin has failed to fully realise the potential of the story, in part due to a reluctance to take on the Hollywood big shots who are identified in Bloom’s book.

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Bloom’s childhood and her rise to the top of her sport oozes potential for a film of its own, but the movie opens with Bloom (Chastain) suffering a career-ending injury in her attempt to qualify for a spot at the Winter Olympics. With skiing out of the picture, Molly takes a job as an assistant to Dean Keith (real estate entrepreneur Darin Fenstein in real life) who organises a weekly poker game at The Cobra Lounge (a not-too-subtle clue that the real club in question was The Viper Room). Soon enough, Molly is handed the responsibility of organising and running the game and it isn’t long before she sees the potential in such a set-up. When she and Keith part ways, Molly decides to establish her own game, taking Keith’s biggest players with her, one of whom is identified in the movie only as Player X, although is it generally accepted that X is really Spiderman star Tobey Maguire, who features prominently in Bloom’s book. As played by Michael Cera, Player X is an asshole who ultimately plays a significant role in Molly’s downfall.

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When she is arrested, Molly turns to lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her and he, in the interests of securing leniency from the courts, implores Molly to name the various players at her games beyond those already exposed in her book or who have already been identified in the course of the investigation, a suggestion she rejects outright. It is somewhat ironic therefore that Sorkin takes an even more conservative approach to this very issue in that, whilst his screenplay has Molly under pressure to give up her players names, he refuses to identify even those participants – such as the likes of Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck – who Bloom mentioned in her memoir.

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Chastain, Elba and Cera are all fine enough in the key roles, with everybody else confined to the margins, including Kevin Costner as Molly’s father, a somewhat one-dimensional and rather contemptible character whose approval Molly has spent so much of her life trying to secure. Given that Bloom was involved in the adaptation of her story to the screen, it is reasonable to assume that her father was, indeed, the utter prick that we see here. Whilst Molly’s Game allows us a glimpse into a world of high stakes poker that is fascinating but far beyond the reach of us ordinary folk, the ending ultimately emerges as an anti-climax that leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about.

The Shape of Water

It is common knowledge that Guillermo del Toro loves monsters. The Mexican director has made no secret of the fact and his obsession has been articulated on screen before with the superb Pan’s Labyrinth and, to a lesser extent, in the two Hellboy movies. Having ventured, less successfully, into the more traditional horror and sci-fi realms with his last two films (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak), del Toro returns to his passion with The Shape of Water, a film that, amidst the generally rave reviews and award nominations, has also been deemed the ‘end of civilisation’ by one nut-job pastor who definitely doesn’t deserve the moment in the spotlight that his ridiculous comments have garnered. Sure, others have taken aim at the ‘inter-species relationship’ that is the central tenet of the narrative, but the bond that develops between a mute cleaner and a mysterious sea creature held captive in a research facility is no more provocative than the likes of Beauty and the Beast or other films that have seen human characters form a connection with a non-human entity, such as the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow in King Kong or Caleb Smith’s flirtations with the robot Ava in Ex-Machina. These types of stories have been around as long as films have existed and this particular version plays out as a fairytale for adults; a celebration of the outsider that pays homage to monster movies with a stylistic nod to Old Hollywood.

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Rendered voiceless in a childhood incident, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives alone in a flat above a movie cinema. Her day is one of ritual and routine; waking at midnight, masturbating in the bath, catching the bus to work for a night spent in the company of Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as they go about cleaning a facility that seems to require a lot more janitorial attention than seems absolutely necessary. Other than her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), Zelda is the only person with whom Elisa has any kind of relationship as many, especially the supercilious Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), treat her as though her inability to speak somehow makes her intellectually defective in some way. Strickland is the man responsible for the capture of the sea creature being held in a tank at the facility and whilst he, and everybody else, treats the ‘beast’ as a threat, Elisa makes a connection that results in the two developing a mutual affection drawn from a shared sense of being seen as an oddity and therefore misunderstood by others.

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Hawkins is wonderful as this lonely woman who is all but invisible to everybody except Zelda, Richard and, of course, her newfound friend from the deep. Having already garnered considerable praise – and some award recognition – for her performances in the likes of Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine, Hawkins should feature strongly in the Academy Award reckoning this year. Zelda is a hoot who does more than enough talking for the both of them, while Doug Jones deserves recognition for bringing ferocity and sensitivity to the amphibious creature despite the confines of the costuming. Jenkins is funny as an advertising illustrator whose relevance is being eroded by changing technology, with Michael Stuhlbarg at the centre of a cold war subplot in which his Dr Robert Hoffstetler is torn between his obligations as a Russian agent and his ethical responsibilities as a scientist. The real beast of the piece is Strickland, whose fearsome and intimidating persona at work is in stark contrast to his kitschy home life.

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Dan Lausten’s cinematography is vibrant and del Toro has, quite remarkably, executed a vast array of fantastical elements, incorporating practical effects and CGI seamlessly and bringing the whole thing together for less than $20 million. Very much a film that celebrates cinema – Elisa and Giles sit and watch old black and white movies and featuring the likes of Shirley Temple and Betty Grable as other movies play in the cinema below – The Shape of Water is a tale of love, loneliness and connection that is whimsical, wistful and quite wonderful.

The Post

Set in the early 1970’s during a time of growing anger at America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War, Steven Spielberg’s latest doesn’t focus on the conflict itself, instead shining some light on the machinations behind the scenes; the deceit and dishonesty by the Government in relation to how, and why, decisions were made and the misinformation that was fed to the media in the interests of misleading the American public. It is hardly surprising that efforts were made to prevent the news media from publishing excerpts from the classified report – dubbed The Pentagon Papers – given it reveals that the administrations of several Presidents knew that America was losing the war and to keep sending troops was a folly from which the only certainty seemed to be the unnecessary death of US soldiers. Extensive excerpts from the report were initially published in The New York Times and subsequently in The Washington Post (hence the title), detailing the lies told to the American populous about US military involvement in, not only Vietnam, but across entire Indochina region since the 1940’s.

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The crux of the story lies in the dilemma facing Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) with regard to whether or not she should allow her editor Tony Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to print extracts from the documents in the face of a court ruling that prohibits the New York Times from doing exactly that. Whilst Bradlee argues that they should be able to publish the information because the public has a ‘right to know’, he is also acutely aware that this is an opportunity for his paper to gain credibility and emerge from the shadows of more highly-regarded publications. Undermined by the men who refuse to take her seriously, Graham is faced with a decision that could, in addition to the significant political ramifications, have serious implications for the future of the paper and her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the man responsible for many of the findings outlined in the documents. Despite subject matter that seems ideal for dramatic exploration, The Post is surprisingly dull, both in its exploration of the story and the characterisation of the key players.

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Hanks’ performance makes Bradlee seem more like a cartoonish version of such a character – Perry White or J. Jonah Jamieson, for example – rather than somebody we can take seriously. Streep, meanwhile, also fails to convince as a woman who, in theory at least, is breaking new ground in a traditionally male-centric environment, yet struggles to assert her authority, with Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whiford) particularly hostile in his resentment towards her. The terrific supporting cast also includes Matthew Rhys as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and Bob Odenkirk as the journalist who tracks him down (as easy as a couple of phone calls, apparently), along with Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson and Alison Brie, although none of these women have roles befitting their considerable talents, which is more to do with the rampant sexism and misogynistic attitudes of the time, rather than any failings of the filmmakers.

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A limp screenplay ensures that neither Hanks nor Streep are anywhere near their best here and The Post falls somewhat short in comparison to other films of this ilk – such as All the President’s Men or the recent Spotlight, for example – and whilst, as some have said, it might be Spielberg’s best film for some time, it pales in comparison to his greatest achievements. Despite subject matter (freedom of speech, government accountability) that is extremely relevant at the moment in light of the current political climate in America (and elsewhere), The Post somehow fails to resonate in any meaningful way and, rather than leave you pondering the complexities of the debate around free speech and freedom of the press, it is very unlikely that any of what transpires will remain in your consciousness beyond the time it takes you to get home from the cinema.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are indeed three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, sitting dilapidated, unused and largely unseen given their location alongside a quiet country road. However, they soon become the centre of attention when grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the signs in a bid to hold local Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) accountable for what she sees as a lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder some nine months earlier. Bitter and burdened by an all-consuming mix of guilt, anger and grief, Mildred is desperate for answers and seemingly has no regard for whoever happens to get in the way of her bloody-minded quest. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is undeniably funny at times and McDormand is sensational in the lead role, but there are too many moments of serious violence that are played for laughs and for which there are no real consequences forthcoming for those responsible.

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One thing at which McDonagh has proven very adept in his previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is dishing up great dialogue and that is the case again here with some cracking lines delivered by various players, which include Sam Rockwell as a particularly problematic policeman. Despite Mildred’s very public admonishment of Willoughby, there is nothing to suggest that he hasn’t done everything he can to solve the case and Harrelson brings a perfect mix of humour and humanity to the role. In fact, Harrelson is terrific as a man held in high regard by the community who is burdened by a pressing personal predicament that is much more serious than anything Mildred can throw at him. Mildred’s foul-mouthed tirades are a riot and her interactions with Willoughby are something special, but when one of them makes an early exit from proceedings, the film flounders through the final third amidst a series of convenient coincidences and scenes that only seem to exist for the comic potential they offer; a potential that is not always fully realised.

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Rockwell is lumbered with a character too stupid to be believable and the fact that he is allowed to get way with so much – such as throwing somebody out of a second-storey window for no real reason whatsoever – with nary a hint of any serious repercussions other than losing a job for which he was utterly unsuited in the first place, requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. As James, Peter Dinklage has little to do other than suffer through a series of dwarf jokes and serve as an alibi for Mildred, while John Hawkes also features as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, who is prone to outbursts of violence. In one scene, Charlie has Mildred pinned to the wall and is poised to strike when his girlfriend Penelope (Australian actress Samara Weaving) interrupts proceedings but is utterly non-plussed about what she has witnessed. Unfortunately for Weaving, Penelope is such a cliché as the dumb, much younger girlfriend that the character has little substance and affords little opportunity for her to make her presence felt, while another Aussie in Abbie Cornish is also confined to a somewhat insubstantial role as Willoughby’s wife.


When it’s good, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is very good; a cracking good yarn with a plot that seems much more complex than it actually is, but is engaging nevertheless. The dialogue delivers all the best moments, one of which is Mildred drawing an analogy between LA street gangs and the Catholic Church. Sometimes, the violence is too excessive within the context of this story, but the standout performances from McDormand and Harrelson go a long way towards compensating for the shortcomings that exist in character development and narrative logic. It is not surprising that McDormand is amongst the Oscar favourites for her performance and whilst the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights, it is definitely something that strays far from the cookie-cutter conventions of Hollywood.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There are many people whose claims of fandom towards a particular movie franchise are worthy of our deepest suspicion. These are the types who use words like passion and obsession whenever they describe their relationship with a particular film/s and think nothing of dressing as their favourite character or speaking in a fictitious language. The problem is that it is often these so-called fans who seem to take great pride in attacking the very same films they claim to worship, whether it be taking aim at the director, the actors, particular characters, technical elements or plot developments, all the while claiming to love the very same cinematic universe upon whose most recent instalment they railed against. There has probably been no film series that has found itself subjected to as much scrutiny as the Star Wars saga. Needless to say, this latest instalment has found itself subject to the vitriolic rants of so-called fans decrying myriad elements of the film, with some demanding that The Last Jedi be removed from the Star Wars canon and an alternative episode VIII be offered up by Disney.

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The only real problem with The Last Jedi, and with pretty much every Star Wars movie, is the ridiculous commentary that invariably follows by the nutty nerds who have nothing better to do than waffle on about how (insert directors name here) got it so wrong. It would not matter what the finished product looked like, these so-called fans would find something to complain about. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson has created something that is a perfectly acceptable and, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyable addition to the sci-fi series that, if the profits it has generated for Disney is any indication, will continue long into the future. Sure, there are some rather corny moments, but given the fantastical nature of the worlds in which the films are set, it seems kind of petty to fuss too much over these. Would the film be better without the much mocked moment that sees General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), having been sucked into space when her ship comes under attack from TIE Fighters, floating her way Peter Pan-like back to safety?. Perhaps, yes, but the intent was obvious enough in that it was to demonstrate the latent Force powers that Organa possesses. It was a clumsy attempt that looked initially to be a logical way of killing off the character in light of Fisher’s death last year, but the fact that she is miraculously resurrected does raise questions about how the character will ultimately exit the franchise.

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There are a lot of unanswered questions that emerge from The Last Jedi, but that should hardly come as a surprise given that revealing too much leaves less to explore in future instalments. Much mystery remains around Rey (Daisy Ridley), her background and how she came to possess the Force but, as she was in her first appearance in The Force Awakens, Ridley balances the juxtapositions of her character with distinction and her casting has been a masterstroke in delivering a relatable character that services both the existing fan base and newcomers to this cinematic world. All the old favourites – Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewbacca – appear at various times, with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) taking control of the First Order after a showdown with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). However, it is the prominence of Luke Skywalker in proceedings (Mark Hamill) that sets The Last Jedi apart from its immediate predecessor, with the Jedi master living as a recluse on a remote island on the planet Ahch-To and not particularly enamoured by the arrival of Rey seeking tutelage in the ways of the Force.

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As always, there is plenty of humour amidst the action and with an all-star cast that includes the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Gewendoline Christie, Justin Theroux, Adrian Edmondson and Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd, there is plenty to enjoy. This is the longest film in the franchise thus far and there are some scenes that do outstay their welcome, but overall Johnson has delivered something that resembles what we have come to expect from the characters and the world(s) in which they live and the ending has set up the next film as a classic underdog story as the small group of surviving Resistance fighters set about rebuilding.

The Florida Project

Following his breakout hit Tangerine, the next project for director Sean Baker was always going to attract plenty of interest and, understandably, much anticipation. Filmed on an iPhone (as much a gimmick as anything I would think), Tangerine explored the humour and hardship of those living on the margins of mainstream society in Los Angeles and with The Florida Project, Baker mines similar territory, although this time the setting is Orlando, Florida. As was the case with Tangerine, Baker uses largely unknown performers in all the major roles, with the exception of Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the compassionate, yet conflicted, manager of a tourist strip motel that is a far cry from the glitzy, feel good narrative of the nearby Disneyworld theme park that casts its mocking shadow over the lives of the motley bunch for whom the Magic Castle Motel is home.

The Florida Project poster

The story revolves around the daily adventures of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her small group of friends as they spend each day exploring their domain, which includes neighbouring bushland, abandoned resorts and the endless array of tacky tourist-tempting souvenir shops and strip malls that line the highway. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose lack of oversight enables Moonee to pretty much do as she pleases, much of which results in considerable frustration for Bobby and other residents. Halley spends her days watching television or hawking cheap perfumes to gullible tourists and whilst Baker doesn’t offer a lot with regard to the circumstances that brought her, or any of the others for that matter, to be living in the motel, Halley doesn’t exactly seem overly motivated to bring about any real change in her circumstances. Of course, the issue that Baker is tackling here is how local residents, and particularly those already living on the margins, are often left behind in the name of progress, with tourist infrastructure a greater priority than affordable housing.

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There is much amusement in Moonee’s antics which are, by and large, reasonably harmless, although there will be those who find some of her behaviours problematic in someone so young, but to a large extent she is simply a product of the circumstances in which she finds herself. Her tough, bossy exterior shields a vulnerability that she keeps in check for the most part and young Prince is remarkably authentic as a six-year-old who is largely oblivious to the potential dangers to which she exposes herself; she is just trying to find an escape from the dreary existence of life in a two-bit motel. Although Prince and the rest of the unknown performers are all exceptional, it is Dafoe as Bobby who makes the film soar.

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Bobby is sympathetic to the circumstances of those residing at the Magic Castle, acting as a father-figure of sorts to the kids and trying to balance his compassion with his responsibilities to the motel owners. He advocates for his tenants and, even when he is fighting with them, he does so with their best interests at heart. If he is angry at Halley for being late with her rent, it is only because he doesn’t want to see her and Moonee evicted. It is a delicate, yet stoic performance that is full of empathy. Forget Spiderman and the myriad other spandex-wearing Marvel types, Bobby is the type of hero we need to see more often on screen; somebody who cares about others and does everything in his power to make their lives a little bit better than they might otherwise be, even if his efforts often go unappreciated. The sun-drenched candy-coloured palette doesn’t hide the darker themes that Baker is exploring and, whilst he might not get any offers from the Disney Corporation any time soon, this is a funny, frightening, compassionate and ethical film that is neither condescending nor cavalier in its examination of poverty and, perhaps most impressively, Baker avoids delivering judgment on the (types of) people who populate the story.

The Best Flicks of 2017

Here we are again. We have reached the end of another year and it is time to look back at the movies of the last 12 months to identify the best releases of the year. Unlike other lists of this type which flood the internet, newspapers and magazines, mine has been compiled at the end of the year to make it an accurate reflection of my viewing experience over the entire 12 months of 2017.

I realise that many such lists are meaningless and often put together by people who are servants to personal preferences, a particular political/social ideology or industry influences, so a list such as mine should come as welcome relief because it is devoid of influence from any individual, organisation or ideological framework. It is derived purely from the truth of the viewing experience and the quality of the product that has been presented on screen.

It would be impossible for me to have seen every film released this year so this list is drawn from the movies that I have seen in cinemas in 2017 (regardless of when they were initially released). New releases, festival screenings, re-releases, previews or retrospectives; if I saw it in a cinema in 2017, it is eligible for inclusion in this list. Films viewed on DVD, television or via streaming or online platforms are most definitely not considered.

This list is compiled using the reviews and ratings that I posted on Letterboxd in the days following each screening. Given that there will be many movies with the same or similar ratings, I also take into account the way in which a film has continued to resonate with me long after I saw it, which always suggests that there is something particularly prescient or powerful about a particular production.

Ultimately, my list cannot be any more or less ‘correct’ than anybody else’s, but it is probably more genuine than most. However, the reality is that there are some movies that are just so good that they simply cannot be overlooked or ignored.

The films are not ranked in any particular order as all of the films listed in this group of ten are outstanding and attempting to narrow the order into some kind of sequential evaluation of merit seems a little pointless. They are all excellent and they all deserve to be celebrated and admired. No doubt there are those who will disagree with my choices and that is fine because those people absolutely have the right to be wrong.

Only films viewed in a cinema by me in 2017 have been considered. Release dates are irrelevant and should never be considered for such lists. This is about the best movies I saw in a cinema in the last 12 months. It also, obviously, precludes any films released in 2017 that I am yet to see.

So, my Top Ten movies of 2017 (in no particular order) are:

Edge of Seventeen

Manchester by the Sea

The Salesman


The Lure


The Square


Ingrid Goes West


Of course, these are not the only great movies released this year and there are plenty more for which justification for inclusion could easily be mounted. The compilation of such a list necessitates the absence of some very good films to arrive at a final ten.  Therefore, here are 10 others worthy of mention that could quite easily have been included as one of the final ten:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer


Certain Women

20th Century Women

Hidden Figures

The Florida Project

Just to be Sure

Good Time

Toni Erdmann

Get Out

With the good comes the bad and this year, like every other, there were some real stinkers. The particularly bad releases in 2017 that I had the misfortune to see include Will Ferrell’s diabolically unfunny The House, the unintentionally humorous Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me and Kong: Skull Island, the latest instalment of a franchise in which each new chapter sinks deeper into the murky depths of mediocrity.