Blog

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

Now playing:

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…

STEVE JOBS: An Intensely Talky Character Study In 3 Acts

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

STEVE JOBS (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2015)


A
s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and director Danny Boyle have stressed repeatedly, this highly anticipated portrait of the late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs isn’t a biopic – it’s an intensely talky character study told in three acts, each set backstage at crucial product launches in Jobs’ career.


The first third is set in 1984, at the launch for the original Macintosh at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, California. We meet Jobs (Michael Fassbender in his sharpest performance yet and with a flawless American accent to boot) fretting over making the computer say “hello” to introduce itself when turned on for the presentation.

In snappy, witty dialogue largely delivered within walks and talks – a very familiar Sorkin device – Jobs argues with key Mac engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his trusted marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) over the issue.


Hertzfeld protests: ““We’re not a pit-crew at Daytona, this can’t be fixed in seconds.”

“You don’t have seconds – you had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time,” Jobs responds.

“Well, someday, you’ll have to tell us how you did it,” Hertzfeld replies through a smirk.

Yep, there’s that Sorkin snap!

Floating in and out of Jobs’ orbit are Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO John Sculley, who needles Jobs about how they used real skin-heads in the famous “1984” Apple television commercial; Seth Rogen as Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, who wants Jobs to give credit to the Apple II computer team in his speech; and most importantly Katherine Waterson as Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, and her five-year-old daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss), whose paternity Jobs denies.

These interactions take us up until Jobs is introduced onstage, then the film transitions to the man and his team preparing for the launch of the NeXT computer system at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. This time our genius is worried that the dimensions are off on what’s supposed to be a perfect cube of a computer.

As he makes the rounds through the facility, Jobs argues with the same folks – Sculley, Woz, Brennan – but he’s beginning to bond with his daughter, played at age 9 by Ripley Sobo, so there’s some significant development there.

The concluding third of the film concerns the launch event for the iMac in 1998 at the same venue as the ’84 Macintosh, and yet again we see Jobs go through the tangled motions with his minions (no, not those Minions!). Perla Haney-Jardine fills the shoes of his daughter at 19, who, of course, gets to finally connect with her father.

There’s some patented Sorkin character cutesiness present in such moments as Jobs telling his Walkman carrying daughter that he’s going to put “a thousand songs in your pocket” (the iPod, duh!), and when Wozniak and Jobs bicker over a Beatles analogy (“I’m tired of being Ringo when I know I was John,” Woz complains), but overall it’s a meticulously sculpted screenplay that’s a shoo-in for a Oscar nomination. I prefer Sorkin’s script for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but this is in the same lofty class.

As some scenes are strained and some beats are repetitive, STEVE JOBS falls just short of greatness, much like the man himself as these three spotlighted products were financial failures, but its strengths which lie in the delightfully punchy performances by Fassbender and everyone in the cast (seriously, there is no weak link in this ensemble), the volumes of perfectly on point one-liners, and Boyle’s inspired stylistic choices like using different film formats for each era (’84 in 16mm, ’88 in 35mm, and ’98 in digital) elevate it into a series of speculated conversations well worth cinematically eavesdropping on.


Jobs was a visionary, but, yeah, he could also be bit of a dick. Boyle, Sorkin, and Fassbender’s take on the man is that he was well aware of that, but it couldn’t be helped because “there is no off position on the genius switch,” as David Letterman would say.

More later…