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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Molly’s Game

"The Greatest Showman,” “All the Money in the World,” and “Phantom Thread” are also new to Blu-Ray this week

Most movies about card games focus on the players. We almost invariably see a group of men staring each other down in smoke-filled back rooms, looking for tells, calling, raising, and bluffing to win the big pot in the center of the table. It’s rare to get a glimpse, let alone an entire movie, about the person who put the game together. But we get one such movie with “Molly’s Game.”

The title character is Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an ex-Olympic class skier who never made the team. Why she didn’t make the team is painfully recounted in the opening moments of “Molly’s Game,” as she briefs us on her childhood with her hard-nosed psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushing her to be the best on the slopes. Molly, we learn, also had ambition to become a lawyer. Judging by her above average LSAT score and clearly high level of intelligence, she would have made a good one.

Would have, if not for “taking a year off’ between college and law school to live in L.A. and run drinks at a night club. It’s here where Molly meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), who embodies every ugly trait of the stereotypical L.A. egoist. He hires Molly as a personal assistant, and recruits her to help him run the game while he plays. The game includes a mix of L.A. elite. No true names are given, but lawyers, businessmen, musicians, and actors are a part of this ten-person game. One of the actors is a famous one, played by Michael Cera, and simply referred to in the movie as Player X. Allow me to save you the Google search: The consensus is that Player X’s real identity is Tobey Maguire. Of course, we will never know for sure, but the signs point to him.

It’s not long before Molly is running a game of her own, first in L.A., then in New York. Not long after that, she has a scary encounter with the New York Italian mob (nowhere near as nice as the Russian mob in Molly’s estimation) and calls it quits. Two years later, the F.B.I. takes her into custody. Her only hope of going free is a high-priced defense attorney (Idris Elba). He reluctantly takes her case, but the more he learns about Molly, her history, and her situation, the more passionate he becomes about defending her.

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A lot of the accolades during awards season surrounded Jessica Chastain and writer/director Aaron Sorkin. Chastain’s performance is top shelf, and Sorkin’s direction and dialogue are exceptional. He’s a true master at creating engaging characters and providing actors with wonderfully rhythmic, give and take dialogue. It’s a letdown that Elba didn’t receive more praise for his performance. Not only is he the other half of some invigorating dialogue between himself and Chastain, but he also absolutely nails a monologue during a deposition where he stands up and details all of the reasons why the state’s case against his client is utterly unfair and unfounded. By the end of it, he’s exhausted, Molly is looking at him in stunned awe, and truth be told, so was I. It reminded me of some of the great moments in the work of Paddy Chayefsky, writer of such noteworthy scripts as “Network,” “The Hospital,” and “Marty.” Yes, it was that good. So is this movie. Buy it.

Also New This Week

The Greatest Showman

Love him or hate him, the influence of P.T. Barnum on show business cannot be denied. As played by Hugh Jackman in “The Greatest Showman,” Barnum is an infectiously upbeat and positive person, even when he’s poor and barely making ends meet for his family. His wife Charity (Michelle Williams) loves him, but her parents don’t. His solution for the fame and fortune that will win their approval is to gather together local outcasts from society, including a diminutive man he calls Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), a hair-covered man he calls Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna, Jr.), and that carnival staple, a Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), then sell tickets to the public to gawk at them. Barnum also meets a playwright named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who he takes on as a partner.

The human nature of social prejudice is explored in “The Greatest Showman,” as the locals don’t take too kindly to Barnum’s performers. After all, his performers are “freaks” who don’t fit in with the normal fabric of society. Anything different is unknown, and anything unknown is feared. The rational solution is to get to know these performers as people and no longer be afraid of them, then in time, come to accept them. Unfortunately, people were not any more rational in the 1800s than they are now, so the performers constantly have to defend themselves against verbal and physical attacks. It’s sad to think that from Barnum’s time to now, the human race has made zero progress in this regard. But, humanity was like this 200 years before Barnum, and it’s a safe bet that it will still be this way 200 years from now. This type of behavior is woven into our collective DNA.

Not that Barnum is much of an exception. Sure, he embraces his performers and sticks up for them, but that is because of profit. They’re an investment to him—not friends. This is made clear after he promotes the U.S. tour of a famous British opera singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). At a reception in her honor, his performers show up, wanting to be part of the grand event. They’re turned away at the door. It’s a disappointing moment for Barnum, and a hard hit to know that his connection to the ones who helped make him rich isn’t as personal as they thought. The movie lets Barnum off easy for this transgression, but he pays in other ways.

The good news around Barnum is that while he is certainly not perfect and made some blunders, he never means any purposeful harm. He just wants to entertain, and like the title suggests, be the greatest showman. It’s only fitting that a movie about a great entertainer be entertaining in and of itself. The musical numbers are spellbinding, and a well-choreographed set piece with Jackman and Efron that takes place in a bar is a true show stopper. While his portrayal isn’t always flattering, it’s at least fair, and I like to think that Barnum himself would be proud to have his name on it. Buy it.

All the Money in the World

Here’s a little known fact about a lot of rich people: They’re cheap. It’s how they got rich in the first place. This is supposed to be our impression of J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) in “All the Money in the World.” After his teenage grandson J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped in Rome and held for ransom for $17 million, Getty can’t be bothered to hear the news because he’s too busy checking the stock market ticker. Once the press gets a hold of the story, he is asked how much he’d pay to get his grandson back. Getty responds, “Nothing.”

This upsets and frustrates the boy’s mother (Michelle Williams), but Getty’s trusted muscle/security expert Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) thinks it’s the right thing to do. There is a point to be made in not paying, since to pay would be to invite criminals from all over the world to repeat the kidnapping and ransom demands, knowing they will be paid. It just invites more trouble. The better plan is to hunt the kidnappers down, rescue, the boy, and teach a lesson to any would-be kidnappers that there are consequences for kidnapping a Getty. Easier said than done.

The details of the five month long Getty kidnapping are dived into with careful attention. Sometimes a bit too much, as we experience every painful, helpless moment of witnessing poor John Paul Getty III getting is ear cut off. Director Ridley Scott unflinchingly puts us right there during the event, which is one of the most well-known aspects of the real life case.

Michelle Williams delivers a multi-faceted performance as a woman trying to keep it together during a very emotionally demanding ordeal. She’s caught between two types of greed: That of the kidnappers who are holding her son for ransom, and that of her father-in-law, who will only provide $1 million toward the ransom that he can use as a tax write off. He also uses the $1 million offer as a way to take custody away from the mother and back to his junkie son J. Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan). Sure, this move is opportunistic in a vile way, but once again, this is how J. Paul Getty got rich—by seizing opportunities when they arose and by fiercely guarding his possessions, be they money, works of art, or people. In Getty’s mind, his grandson was stolen from him, by his mother and now by the kidnappers, and it wouldn’t be a wise business move to pay to get back what was stolen from him. It’s fair to say that Getty could have shown more tact and compassion, especially after things took a turn for the worse with the kidnapping, but his decisions weren’t entirely wrong either. Rent it.

Phantom Thread

It’s amazing how suspenseful dress making can be. At one point in “Phantom Thread,” renowned 1950s London dress maker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) accidentally ruins a wedding gown that is due to ship out the next morning. The seamstresses who work for him sewing the gown by hand (not a single sewing machine is present in his house) must work through the night to make sure the dress is ready in time. There is a Hitchcockian level of will they or won’t they complete the repairs in time surrounding the gown. I never thought I’d be so much on the edge of my seat about sewing, but there I was, lump in throat, waiting eagerly to find out.

The answer to this question is one I will let you discover for yourself. It is not central to the story of “Phantom Thread,” it’s just a well-directed sequence from Paul Thomas Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay. The crux of the movie is about Reynolds’s relationship with his muse of the moment, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Alma is a stubborn, pig-headed woman who insists on getting her way. She constantly spars with Reynolds. Depending on his mood, Reynolds is either charmed by her quips and comebacks or frustrated by them, wanting her to be quiet and go away. Reynolds himself is a fickle man. He seems to be able to devote himself 100% passionately to his craft or to a woman—but never to both at the same time. Since his attention can’t be divided, it’s up to his right hand woman Cyril (Lesley Manville) to maintain whichever aspect of Reynolds’s life he is neglecting at the moment.

“Phantom Thread” starts off with a strong amount of exertion, as Reynolds meets Alma on a holiday by the seaside, charms her, and brings her back to London with him to live in his large, luxurious house, out of which he creates his dresses for the ladies of London upper class society. We see his creative process, how he runs hot and cold with Alma, and her reaction to it all. Then about halfway through there is what your writing teacher would call an “inciting incident.” This should have been the catalyst for greater tension and drama, but instead the movie actually slows down. The suspenseful scene with the gown aside, the movie heads toward inertia in a surprisingly disappointing way. It doesn’t get totally boring, but I have a feeling that if the run time was any longer, it might have gotten that way. Too bad too, after such an amazing first half. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay,” violent, bloody outing from Warner Brothers animation in which the DC Comics team of antiheroes chases down a literal “Get Out of Hell Free” card, featuring the voice talents of Christian Slater as Deadshot, Vanessa Williams as Amanda Waller, and Tara Strong as Harley Quinn.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.