Friday, 9 February 2018

MOLLY'S GAME : Tuesday 6th February 2018.

'MOLLY'S GAME' which I saw on Tuesday evening this week is Written and Directed, in his fimmmkaing debut, by Aaron Sorkin, who has here based his first film on the memoir 'Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker' by Molly Bloom. The Molly Bloom in question here is a former American poker entrepreneur who in April 2013 was charged with running a high-stakes poker game that originated in the Viper Room in Los Angeles and attracted wealthy individuals and business tycoons, sports figures, Hollywood celebrities including Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and Macauley Caulkin amongst others, and the Russian Mob. She was cleared of many charges and sentenced in 2014 to one year of probation, a $1,000 fine, and 200 hours of community service. The film Premiered at TIFF back in early September last year, and went on release in the US on Christmas Day 2017 and has received much critical acclaim for Sorkin's screenplay and the performances of its principal cast. Costing US$30M to make, the film has so far grossed US$50M, has received much positive press, and has garnered so far three wins and 33 other nominations, some which are still at the decision pending stage including the Academy Award and BAFTA nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Aaron Sorkin's other big screen writing credits include 'A Few Good Men', 'The American President', 'Charlie Wilson's War', 'The Social Network' (for which he won an Academy Award), 'Moneyball' and 'Steve Jobs', as well a television's highly successful 'The West Wing' series amongst others.

And so based on a true story, this crime drama stars Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, a world class moguls skier who while qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games suffers a serious injury so ending her Olympic aspirations. Licking her rounds and instead of moving to law school as was her original plan, she moves to Los Angeles and gets a job as a bottle service waitress at a night club. She's making an OK wage plus tips, and in time meets Dean (Jeremy Strong) who runs an unsuccessful real estate business by day, but a hugely successful underground poker game by night. At first Molly becomes his office manager and Girl Friday, running chores and needless errands, but soon he gets her involved in running his poker games, all in secret and not to tell a soul. Going in she is clueless about the game, but quickly learns the language, the hands, the stakes and the personalities involved in Dean's games which include the rich and famous, movie stars, sports players, music personalities, wealthy businessmen from whom she starts to earn big tips.

As Molly begins to ingratiate herself to the regular players so the tips become from more frequent and more sizeable. She is good at what she does and keeps everything above board, maintaining meticulous records and strong (strictly business) relationships, all the while learning the intricacies of the game and the players. The most successful of whom is Player X (Michael Cera) playing a composite of some high profile Hollywood A-List Actor types. Molly aims to keep on the right side of Player X, for he has the pulling power to attract more high wealth players to Dean's games. In time however, Dean observes that Molly is becoming more independent at managing and running the games and is making plenty of money in tips - a fact that he is secretly jealous with. And so Dean delivers Molly an ultimatum, which is not to her liking, and so Dean fires her.

Molly has made a substantial sum in tips over the years, and so is hardly destitute. Musing over her new unemployed status, she decides that she is good enough at running such poker games, has a network of players who would gladly follow her, and has the credibility to make a real go of it. And so she rents a penthouse in a hotel, hires the tables and the staff to run the games, organises the catering and a well stocked bar and begins to secretly spread the word about her high stakes poker games. Player X, along with those others from Dean's games, defect over to Molly's game, and she becomes increasingly successful amassing more money from tips. All is good, until she learns that Player X has covertly been covering the losses of an initially conservative but increasingly compulsive poker player who has lost up big in recent weeks, ultimately costing him his marriage. Molly is none too pleased with Player X's unethical behaviour and the two fall out. Player X returns to Dean's game, taking all the other players with him. Overnight, Molly has gone from hero to zero!

Molly decides upon a change of scenery and heads to New York to begin a new underground poker game with a new bunch of high net worth individuals. Again, Molly proves successful, amassing enough players to be able run multiple games every week. However, in time things begin to take their toll. Despite her apparent success Molly is unable to cover her losses, when players lose and cannot afford to pay up. Her dealer convinces her to begin taking a percentage of large pots so as to be able to recover her potential losses - a fact that she is at first reluctant to undertake, but sees the sense in it and agrees.

One of her players is arrested and convicted for running a Ponzi Scheme which in turn leads to an investigation into Molly's poker games and who the other players involved were/are. At about this time, the pressure is mounting and Molly takes to drugs and alcohol to settle her nerves and ease the stress. Another player, Douglas Downey (Chris O'Dowd) who is infatuated with Molly, introduces wealthy individuals from the Russian Mafia to her game, although Molly is unaware of their mob connections. At the same time Molly is approached by the Italian Mafia who offer to coerce money from players who have racked up debts with Molly, but she politely declines. A few days later at the start of the two week Christmas break period, Molly is attacked in her apartment where she is held at gunpoint, badly beaten, robbed of her cash and jewels and her mother threatened with her life.

Having nursed her wounds and remained holed up in her apartment for two weeks over the Christmas break gradually healing, Molly is ready to return to her poker games. A phone call comes through from Downey in a panic warning her that the FBI is about to descend upon her, as a result of his informing on her. All of her assets are seized and she returns home to live with her mother Charlene (Claire Rankin).

Two years later, and Molly has published her book recounting her story, her rise, her downfall and naming a number of names associated with her games. In the meantime, Molly is arrested by the FBI together with thirty or so others as part of a money laundering scheme and illegal sports gambling operation in cahoots with the Mafia. She seeks out the support of Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) a high profile and very expensive New York lawyer who is reluctant at first to take her case. He however, agrees to help her after learning that she has over US$2M in unclaimed gambling debts and after reading her book which indicates to him that there is insufficient evidence pointing to criminal activity or wrongdoing to warrant a prison sentence.

While this is going on and the trial is awaited, Molly's estranged father Larry (Kevin Costner) who is a noted clinical psychologist, seeks out Molly having read about, and heard about her case in the news, in an attempt to reconcile with his only daughter. He admits that he was over bearing, domineering and demanding of her as a child, but that it was out of love and wanting the best for her in life. However, Larry has a skeleton in his cupboard that only Molly knew about, albeit subconsciously, and this is why he treated her differently to his two older sons who have both gone on to carve out very successful careers for themselves.

Bloom was looking down the barrel of a maximum penalty of ten years in prison, and a US$1.5M fine. On the day of the court hearing, Molly pleads guilty to a lesser charge for her involvement in the operation and was sentenced to a years probation, a US$1,000 fine, and 200 hours of community service much to her and Larrry's surprise, with the Judge practically dismissing the case on the grounds that there was little evidence to demonstrate any real criminal activity.

'Molly's Game' is a solid Directorial debut for Sorkin and has all his usual trademarks of rapid fire dialogue; sports, celebrities and underworld dealings; a strong female protagonist in Chastain and an equally strong support from Idris Elba. The film runs long at 140 minutes, but it moves along at a good pace and seldom leaves you wanting. You do however, need to pay attention as the film darts back and forth from the present day back to Molly's early childhood years learning to perfect her skiing moves under her ever present, demanding and relentless father, and her rebellious teenage years that influenced what she was to become. Then there is the language of the game itself and the images that flick up on the screen of winning hand combinations; then not to forget the confident quick paced dialogue delivered by lawyer Charlie Jaffey in conversation with Molly or defending her case to the Prosecutor's or plea bargaining; and then finally the back to front nature by which the film plays out which we see in flashbacks. The film is entertaining enough and well worth the price of your ticket entry for Chastain's performance alone if nothing else, and to see her sparring with Idris Elba, but in between the moments of razor sharp quickly delivered narrative and exposition, and the action of the poker table and its myriad of players, the film does drag its heels somewhat which elevates the film to the ranks of top card game movies, but doesn't surpass them.

-Steve, at Odeon Online- 

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