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MOLLY’S GAME Is Well Played By Jessica Chastain and Aaron Sorkin

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MOLLY’S GAME (Dir. Aaron Sorkin, 2017)

Jessica Chastain is a shoo-in to get an Oscar nomination for her role as Olympic-class skier-turned-Poker-Princess, Molly Bloom, in the crackling, flashy directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, who is likely to score a nomination (or two) as well.

The real-life Bloom, whose book, “Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World,” this film is based on, was a target of an FBI investigation for running an illegal underground poker ring, which Sorkin lays out here in a movie that at times feels like a busy cluster of montages all crammed together.

That is to say that Sorkin has learned (or cribbed) a lot from David Fincher and Danny Boyle, the filmmakers he collaborated with on THE SOCIAL NETWORK and STEVE JOBS, as well as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, or pretty much any modern director known for their fast-paced, kinetic style in telling close-to-true stories that are packed to the brim with sizzling, often sordid information.

Through sharply spoken narration, Chastain’s Bloom gives us and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (a wonderfully understated Idris Elba, who convincingly works his American accent as well as he did on The Wire) her side to how she built her secret poker empire that involved movie stars, sports stars, business titans, and, most dangerously, members of the Russian mafia.

We see how Bloom was goaded into being a hard driven perfectionist by her strict, demanding psychologist father (Kevin Costner, much more effective as a father figure here than in MAN OF STEEL), and how a skiing accident forced her to reevaluate her career goals. After a brief stint as a cocktail waitress in LA, she works an office assistant to a vulgar producer (played with just the right amount of jaded sleaziness by Jeremy Strong) who introduces her to the world of exclusive back room poker matches with extremely expensive buy-ins.

At her first game at the Cobra Lounge (read: Viper Room), Bloom meets Michael Cera as an A-list actor who’s only identified as Player X (a composite of celebrities such as Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio, among others), and becomes one of her principal players when she leaves her boss, and takes his clients to hold her own games in luxurious hotel suites staffed with former Playboy playmates.

In a dizzying array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we watch as Bloom gets deeper and deeper into a lifestyle of debts and drugs (to help her stay awake for days), bottoming out when she’s brutally beaten up by a mob goon because she refuses the offer of protection by a couple of Italian mafiosos.

One of Sorkin’s most familiar motifs, over confident people sparing with other over confident people, is on full display here in the exchanges between Chastain and Elba, with his trademark snappy dialogue dominating every scene. Sorkin’s screenplay and direction is just as confident as his characters, and it’s a buzz seeing him put all these slick puzzle pieces together into this often exhilarating portrait. It’s also great to see Sorkin refrain from using his patented “walks and talks,” which were a mainstay of one of his most well known works – the presidential television drama, The West Wing.


The sculpting of Sorkin’s material is excellently handled by a trio of editors – Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer, who also deserve Academy action. It may feel like “cut, cut, cut” at times but, dammit, they make the majority of cuts flow into one another with exciting energy while enhancing Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s crisp cinematography from shot to shot. 

The film is sprinkled with amusing supporting turns by Brian d’Arcy James as a poker player so lousy that he’s dubbed “Bad Brad” by Bloom, Chris O’Dowd as a Irish drunkard who, like many of the players, falls in love with Bloom; a sweaty Bill Camp as a seasoned card shark, who gets in way over his head; and Graham Greene as the judge overseeing Bloom’s case.


But MOLLY’S GAME is first and foremost a showcase for the radiant Chastain and the rapidly clever Sorkin, who both well play their hands at every jazzy juncture.


Despite being two hours, and twenty minutes long the movie mostly maintains its intensity and momentum. It does get close to being bogged down with too many details, but it largely transcends its well worn rise and fall arc with its wit and stylish gusto. Some folks may walk out of it wondering what the point of all of it is, but I bet they will have been hugely entertained in the process.

More later…

Don’t Diss On Matt Damon And Miss THE MARTIAN

Now playing at multiplexes from here to Acidalia Planitia:

THE MARTIAN (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2015)

Two years ago around this time we had Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY, last year there was Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, and now there’s this year’s cerebral sci-fi fall release about astronauts struggling for survival in space, Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN, an adaptation of the 2011 bestseller by Andrew Weir that I never got around to reading. And with the news that they just found water on Mars, it couldn’t be more timely.


Set in the near future, the film stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA Astronaut who is left behind by mistake on Mars when the crew of the Ares 3 mission are forced to evacuate during a dangerous dust storm. In the chaos, Damon’s Watney is impaled by flying debris and sent flying off into the distance, leaving his team members to believe that he’s dead.

After Watney regains consciousness and gets back to his house base module in the middle of a large northern basin on Mars called Acidalia Planitia (a real area on the planet) he sizes up the situation via a direct-to-camera video log: “I have no way to contact NASA or my crewmates, but even if I could, it would take four years for another manned mission to reach me, and I’m in a hab designed to last 31 days.”

Our hero figures in order to make water (I guess this aspect is now retro-dated) and grow food on a planet where nothing grows, re-establish contact with NASA, and make the months long journey on the Mars rover cross-planet to the landing site of the next mission he’s “going to have to science the shit out of this!”

Meanwhile back on earth, NASA scientists and officials, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Director of Mars Mission, Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Kristen Wiig as NASA’s head of public relations, and Sean Bean as the flight director, find out that Watney is still alive and they attempt to do the math, with the help of Donald Glover as a awkward scruffy astrodynamicist, and unravel the red tape needed to get him back.

Oh, and the NASA brain trust struggles with whether or not to tell the returning crew headed by Jessica Chastain, who, guilt-stricken at leaving behind her fellow colleague, would surely go against orders to turn her ship around to go back and try to save him if she knew. Also on board with Chastain are Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie, who each have their moments and add to the film’s driving force of humanity.

Damon’s performance as the can-do optimist Watney is so solid that you’ll forget about the controversial crap he’s said that’s had him raked over the coals by the press lately. Here he’s a guy you are really rooting for as he successfully grows a crop of potatoes and laughing with as he bitches about the only music he has to listen to – Commander Chastain’s disco collection on her computer: “I will not turn the beat around!”

Despite the stakes, which do carry considerable weight, this is one of Scott’s sunniest and most fun films. Especially when compared to his last space epic, the ALIEN prequel PROMETHEUS, which I found more grueling than a good time.

Sure, there shades of many movies in play here from APOLLO 13 to CASTAWAY; from the aforementioned GRAVITY to 127 HOURS and so on, but THE MARTIAN never feels derivative. Drew Goddard’s tightly scripted structure smoothes out the tropes into a thoroughly engaging, and consistently gripping narrative. It’s also the second film I’ve seen this week that well utilized the 3D format – THE WALK was the other.

THE MARTIAN and THE WALK, which both open this week, are also alike in that they are inspirational epics that were immaculately shot by the same cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. I’ll be shocked if Wolski doesn’t take home an Oscar next year for one of these visual feasts.

It’s so nice to be back in the ‘movies are getting good again’ season, with such a marvelously gripping movie as THE MARTIAN heading the herd. Just don’t be dissing on Damon so hard that you miss it.

More later…