Molly’s Game (15) ****
There’s no way to mistake Molly’s Game for anything other than an Aaron Sorkin movie. The virtuoso writer kicks off his directorial debut with the linguistic equivalent of a Bond film’s opening action sequence. Not-quite-random facts about the protagonist are dispensed in rapid-fire voiceover; a barrage of irreverent sporting references establish the extremity of her competitive nature; quick-cut flashbacks and snazzy editing set-up major themes; and an actual action sequence shows how rigid life plans can be altered in a microsecond. This is how we’re introduced to former Olympic skiing hopeful turned high stakes poker entrepreneur Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). As charged-up, ridiculous and self-parodic as this sequence can seem, it’s also hugely entertaining, not least because of the speed with which it helps the film get to the meat of the story. That story is one of great hubris but also nobility in a world where money, criminality and pig-like attitudes towards women converge around poker tables frequented by the rich, the famous and the loathsome. Bloom’s real life trials are essayed via nifty structuring tricks that replicate the juicy tabloid-friendly story of her rise and fall, yet the film also zooms out beyond the FBI indictment that brought her down to examine why she got such a kick out of running the borderline illegal games. Though Sorkin alights on a bad father/daughter dynamic familiar from Steve Jobs, it’s still pretty satisfying, partly because Kevin Costner plays Molly’s therapist father, partly because Chastain grounds Sorkin’s idealised conception of Bloom in something a little more real (she also spars well with Idris Elba, cast here as Molly’s virtuous defence attorney). As a director Sorkin owes more to the slam-bang mayhem of Danny Boyle than the visual elegance of David Fincher, but mostly he gets out of the way of his writing – delivering for good and ill (but mostly good) a full-throttle Sorkin ride.
The Greatest Showman (PG) **
Failing to live up to the title, PT Barnum musical The Greatest Showman restricts Hugh Jackman by denying him and us the dazzling routines he’s more than capable of delivering. Instead, in softening the story of the infamous freak-show peddler and circus impresario, the film – which has nothing to do with the hit 1980s Broadway and West End musical Barnum – stitches together a one-size-fits-all outsider story with X-Factor-ready torch songs auto-tuned to within an inch of their lives. As Barnum, Jackman is ill-served by the film’s shadeless conception of him as a social climbing tailor’s son who’s far too easily redeemed when he risks the happiness of his family and his performers by constantly courting New York’s disinterested elite classes. The film even has the gall to adopt an us-against-them approach via Barnum’s many contretemps with a joyless theatre critic; pretty rich given it’s Barnum – and by extension the film – who patronisingly views the paying public as one amorphous group easily pleased by any old slop. It’s all very bogus.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A) **
Having exhausted the 1980s, Hollywood ransacks pop culture artefacts from the 1990s with this reboot of the Robin Williams-starring blockbuster about a magical board game that sucks its players into the action. For this updated version, Jumanji is now a vintage video game that causes its players – four bored teens who discover it while on detention – to inhabit the bodies of their game avatars for real. The geek becomes Dwayne Johnson, the wallflower becomes ass-kicking (and scantily clad) Karen Gillan, the star athlete becomes diminutive weakling Kevin Hart and a smartphone obsessed popular girl becomes Jack Black. Retrograde gender stereotypes and knock-off Indiana Jones action set-pieces duly follow.