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#TIFF17 Reviews: Molly’s Game, Brad’s Status, Battle of the Sexes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and 55 Steps

September 18, 2017

By John Corrado

The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri taking home the People’s Choice Award.  Before we officially close the books on this year’s festival, below are my thoughts on the five final films I saw over the weekend.  More information on these movies can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Molly’s Game – ★★★ (out of 4) The directorial debut of master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game dramatizes the story of “poker princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain).  Molly is a professional skier whose athletic career falls apart after suffering a freak accident at the Olympics, to the disappointment of her father (Kevin Costner), who raised her to be an overachiever.  She ends up working for the sleazy real estate agent Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) in Los Angeles, helping organize his weekly underground poker games, where celebrities go to play and hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands.  When Molly realizes that she might get screwed over, she decides to start running the games herself, making herself rich but also coming into contact with people that put her under investigation by the FBI, leaving her to rely on the help of lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to protect her in court.

The screenplay crackles with Aaron Sorkin’s sharp dialogue, jumping back and forth in time between the poker games and criminal investigation, to pull together all the strands of this story.  Jessica Chastain does great work here, brilliantly portraying Molly’s independent-minded entrepreneurial spirit and fierce drive to come out on top, even when skirting the edge of the law.  She is backed up by a great supporting cast, including memorable work from Idris Elba, who exchanges legal arguments and delivers his character’s monologues with aplomb.  The film moves at a fast pace despite running for 141 minutes, playing with wall to wall wordplay that keeps us engaged every step of the way, and shedding insight into the game even for those of us who don’t know much about poker.  The look of the film is slick and appealing, with some stylish editing choices that keep it all feeling tight.  This is Aaron Sorkin’s game as much as it is Jessica Chastain’s game, and his dialogue coupled with her performance make the very entertaining Molly’s Game a blast to watch.

Brad’s Status – ★★★ (out of 4) Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is living a decent life in Sacramento, with a nice home, a good job at a non-profit that he started, a loving wife (Jenna Fischer) and a teenaged son Troy (Austin Abrams) who is getting ready to forge his own path in the world.  But he can’t shake the feeling that he hasn’t done as well and isn’t as successful as his old friends from school (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson and Mike White), who have all found wealth and fame through political commentary, tech companies, hedge funds and film producing, and have far surpassed him both in financial and social circles.  When he accompanies Troy on a trip to Boston to tour university campuses, Brad starts heavily reflecting on his own life and career, coming to terms with the idea that his own son might surpass him in the world.

With an acutely perceptive and beautifully written script from writer-director Mike White, Brad’s Status is a touching father-son dramedy that does a fine job of probing the mid-life crises of a man who is doing pretty well but still feels like somewhat of a failure.  Playing with almost constant voiceover narration, as Brad’s inner dialogue plums the existential depths of his character, the film becomes an emotionally resonant look at someone coming to terms with the fact that the people he grew up with all have become more successful than him, doing pretty well for himself but still craving the respect and admiration that comes so easily to others.  Brad judges himself as a failure because he lacks all of the same material successes as his old friends, but there is something deeper going in his psyche that has to do with the fear of being forgotten or replaced.  The film is carried by a soulful and moving performance from Ben Stiller, who has become one of our finest purveyors of middle aged malaise in countless other great films, and is equally strong here in moments of both awkward humour and deeply affecting character drama, with hints of sadness flashing behind his eyes.

Battle of the Sexes – ★★½ (out of 4) Dramatizing the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Battle of the Sexes sets itself up to be as much a story of chauvinism vs feminism as it is a sports movie.  Billie Jean King is fresh off her win at the US Open in 1972, when she discovers that the United States Lawn Tennis Association is offering female players far less than their male counterparts, and decides to start her own tennis circuit exclusive to women when she fails to win the battle for equal pay.  Despite being married to a man (Austin Stowell), she is also a closeted lesbian who is entering into a tentative relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) on the tour.  Bobby Riggs is a clownish and often obnoxious former Wimbledon champion who believes that female players can never be as strong as the men, and is struggling to deal with his gambling addiction, leading to tensions with his wife (Elisabeth Shue).  Wanting to keep himself in the public spotlight, Bobby Riggs challenges Billie Jean King to a nationally televised match, convinced that he can’t be beaten by a woman, and she takes up the challenge to prove him wrong.

Although Battle of the Sexes has the material and cast to make something memorable, everything about this film feels heavy handed and predictable, more interested in providing a feel good story of feminism triumphing over sexism – with allusions to being a redux of the 2016 election – than it is in delivering a nuanced character study.  The film also makes the mistake of treating Bobby Riggs merely like a comic relief supporting character, which alleviates pretty much all of the stakes as to who is going to win, and feels like a somewhat easy approach.  The lead performances are fun, with Emma Stone disappearing behind her dark hair and glasses, and Steve Carell relishing his chance to play a boor, but they also sometimes feel like stunt casting.  The supporting cast is stacked with roles for a litany of familiar faces, including the likes of Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming, but they all rely a little too heavily on the bad ’70s hair and fashion, and often come off as one-note characters.  The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, a far cry from his Oscar-winning script for Slumdog Millionaire, hits all the typical biopic marks with some clunky and overly obvious dialogue, and the film lacks inherent suspense if you already know the outcome.  This is a crowdpleaser, but not much more.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – ★★★★ (out of 4) Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is grieving the rape and murder of her daughter (Kathryn Newton), and disgusted by the local police department’s seeming lack of action.  So she posts damning messages on three billboards just outside of town to put the pressure on them to speed up the investigation, personally naming and blaming Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrellson) for failing to focus more on solving the case.  But the three billboards also end up having unexpected ramifications and consequences for the locals, including Mildred’s teenaged son (Lucas Hedges), the young guy at the ad agency who rented them out (Caleb Landry Jones), and second-in-command police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

The latest from writer-director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that starts with a great screenplay, and plays with a remarkably handled tone that oscillates seamlessly between pitch black comedy and crime drama.  The amazing cast is fronted by fiercely compelling work from Frances McDormand, who finds her match in the supporting cast.  Sam Rockwell in particular does outstanding work, constantly challenging our perceptions of his character, and brilliantly delivering perhaps the most interesting arc of the film.  Dixon is dimwitted and does some cruel things, but Sam Rockwell ensures that he is never easy to pin down and is much more than just a “bad cop” stereotype, and it’s positively thrilling to watch what he does with the character.  The film maintains a constant, unpredictable tension that is punctuated by its moments of dark humour, operating in grey areas and not giving us easy answers, as the plot keeps throwing curveballs that constantly challenge our initial perception of both the characters and the story.  The film is brilliant for the ways that it challenges us to have empathy for its characters, even when they do unlikeable things, often out of grief and anger.  The final scene is stunning, leaving us with so many unanswered questions, while still feeling like the perfect place to stop.  The film strikes the perfect balance between being complex and challenging, but also darkly funny and wildly entertaining, and it’s this perfectly handled tone that makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri such a knockout.  I get why it won the People’s Choice Award.

55 Steps – ★★½ (out of 4) Based on a real case from the 1980s, 55 Steps opens with Eleanor Riese (Helena Bonham Carter) being held down and medicated against her will in a psychiatric hospital, being given drugs that she hasn’t consented to and are destroying her body, just so that she will be easier for the doctors to handle.  Desperate for the right to make her own decisions about what goes into her body, Eleanor hires “big shot lawyer” Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank) to sue the hospital and ensure that patients can make their own decisions regarding medication.  As Colette puts together a court case, with help from her legal partner Mort Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor), she develops a friendship with Eleanor that extends beyond the legal battle.

While the real case behind 55 Steps carried important ramifications for ensuring rights to thousands of other patients in psychiatric hospitals, the film itself is a pretty standard biopic, that relies a little too heavily on its showier elements.  Helena Bonham Carter goes somewhat over the top in her portrayal of Eleanor, who was diagnosed with both paranoid schizophrenia and a developmental disability, putting heavy focus on the loud and outwardly eccentric aspects of the character and often chewing up the scenery.  Hilary Swank does more subdued work as the hardworking lawyer, and she is fine here, but doesn’t exactly make the role her own.  It all feels like clichéd Oscarbait, and is done in a melodramatic and predictable way, but this doesn’t stop 55 Steps from being a watchable and at times even enjoyable tearjerker that touches on some serious issues.

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