REVIEW: “Molly’s Game”


Jessica Chastain already had one knockout 2017 performance under her belt with the World War 2 drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Now you can make it two with her latest film, the biographical crime drama “Molly’s Game”. It’s an adaptation of the 2014 memoir of Molly Bloom, once an Olympic hopeful in freestyle skiing but later the runner of exclusive underground poker games.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom and is given an incredibly meaty role by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This also marks Sorkin’s feature film directorial debut. Much like his Oscar-winning script for “The Social Network”, “Molly’s Game” slickly weaves together a current day legal drama with flashbacks that tell of Molly’s rise and decade-long run as the “poker princess” which eventually leads to her arrest by the FBI.


Sorkin’s signature dense, fast-paced dialogue zips us through the backstory with the help of Molly’s narration. It comes in spurts and covers a lot of ground – her time at home with her hard-nosed father/coach (another fine supporting turn by Kevin Costner), her move to Los Angeles after a horrible skiing accident, and her high-stakes poker games that start in LA and end in New York.

Throughout these flashbacks we meet an interesting lot of characters. Take Michael Cera who plays a movie star simply known as Player X. In Molly’s memoir she named several A-listers who frequented her games – movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, rapper Nelly, and baseball star Alex Rodriguez to name a few. Many believe Cera’s smarmy Player X is an amalgam of these big named celebrities who helped draw billionaires to Molly’s games. But it seems Player X represents one particular movie star who the book paints as particularly reprehensible – Tobey Maquire.

The dialogue also shines in the current day scenes with Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey. He’s played by Idris Elba, so perfect in tone and intensity. Delivering Sorkin’s words can’t be easy. It demands a quick tongue and even quicker wit. Elba’s delivery is smooth as silk and he shares a well tuned chemistry with Chastain. At times there is a fierce energy between the two but there are also quieter moments which offer a unexpected amount of warmth and levity.


All of it is kept in sync through Sorkin’s impressive direction. He deftly manages his mile-a-minute language and structural hopscotch while giving his performers plenty of space to work. The film also packs a surprising visual punch that matches the spirit and vigor of the dialogue. It’s nothing eye-popping but it’s as sharp and snappy as it’s lead character. And most importantly Sorkin keeps himself out of the way, trusting his material and his actors.

Aaron Sorkin has shown a fascination in self-made success stories as evident by his last four movies. “The Social Network”, “Moneyball”, “Steve Jobs”, and now “Molly’s Game” all tell of individuals who bucked systems and against all probability propelled themselves to success. “Molly’s Game” may be the best of the bunch. It’s one part invigorating character study and one part stunning expose. It features a trifecta of top-notch performances from Elba, Costner, and especially Chastain. It does feel long at 140 minutes yet it’s never dull nor does it run out of gas. Sorkin has too much to say to ever allow that to happen.



REVIEW: “Steve Jobs”

JOBS poster

Michael Fassbender may be the busiest man making movies. The guy is always working. To give you an idea, he appeared in three movies last year and has a whopping five movies slated for a 2016 release. But here’s the great thing – whether he is starring in a huge superhero franchise or smaller independent cinema, Fassbender always delivers rock solid performances. “Steve Jobs” adds to that reputation.

This is the second Steve Jobs biopic within a three year span and the upgrades we get in this film are significant.  Fassbender takes the lead role. Danny Boyle directs. Word wizard Aaron Sorkin writes the screenplay. The story is adapted from Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography and mixes in information gathered from Sorkin’s numerous interviews with Jobs’ associates.

The film wisely steers clear of being an exhaustive biopic. Instead it functions in a three chapter structure, each coinciding with a new product launch from the Apple co-founder. First is the Macintosh launch of 1984. Second is his NeXt computer of 1988. The last chapter jumps to 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac. Between these three pivotal moments in his life, Steve Jobs is faced with a number of professional and personal hurdles. Boyle and Sorkin manage to weave together so many narrative threads most of which rely on relationships that grow (or in many cases fester) as the film moves forward.


Much like with “The Social Network”, Sorkin doesn’t coddle his subject. He paints Jobs as the creative visionary he was, but our backstage access also shows an insufferable, insecure bully obsessed with total control. He constantly badgers his underlings and can’t bring himself to give anyone else the slightest bit of credit or consideration. The person who has an inside communication line with him is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), a marketing executive who is the only person besides himself he seems to depend on. It is a key relationship with Fassbender and Winslet each bringing needed levels of intensity.

Other relationships suffer at the hands of Jobs’ ego. Seth Rogen, an actor whose performances I generally find repellent, steps out of his norm and is great playing Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ old friend and Apple co-founder. I also enjoyed every scene featuring the naturally subdued Michael Stuhlbarg. He plays Andy Hertzfeld, an original Mac team member and “family friend” of Jobs. Jeff Daniels is really good as John Sculley, the CEO of Apple. All three chapters show each of these relationships in various stages of disrepair.

Perhaps the most damning scenes feature Jobs with his daughter Lisa. We first meet her at five years-old and she serves as a small window into Jobs’ private life. Jobs shamelessly denies he is her father and, despite his net worth, leaves her and her mother (Katherine Waterston) living on welfare. While Lisa showcases the more despicable side of Jobs, she also offers the one thin chance at redemption.

Boyle’s high-energy direction is a nice compliment to Sorkin’s dialogue. Boyle is known for pulling all sorts of visual tricks out of his hat. Here he shoots the 1984 segment in grainy 16mm, 1988 in 35mm, and 1998 in full digital. It’s such a cool way of distinguishing the time periods aside from the standard new haircuts and age-worn faces. Other than that Boyle doesn’t go overboard. We still get a few of those signature showy strokes, but otherwise he keeps everything nicely situated within the script’s theatrical boundaries.


And then we come back to Fassbender, critically praised and with an Oscar nomination to match. He handles Sorkin’s thick, tricky dialogue with profound surety. It’s a commanding performance that manages to make you admire him in one scene and detest him in the next. And aside from his great delivery, Fassbender channels his character’s complexities through every insecure smirk, every cut of the eyes, and every defiant stare.

There are a few things that left me curious. As with “The Social Network” Sorkin takes some enormous liberties depicting Steve Jobs all for the sake of drama. While Sorkin is never one to shy away from that fact, its understandable how some might take issue. And is it that common for everyone to have their meltdowns and emotional face-offs 30 minutes prior to every major technology presentation? That is certainly the case in all three chapters of “Steve Jobs”.

Aside from that “Steve Jobs” got its hooks in me right off the bat and kept me captivated for the duration. Despite the questions I had, it is so satisfying to watch good actors work with a whip-smart script and under very assured direction. All of these pieces do their parts in making “Steve Jobs” an usual but thoroughly entertaining biopic.