Review – Sorkin’s Not Bluffing (“Molly’s Game”)

Screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin has finally been given the directors chair. About time, too! From his mastery of the English language in such plays and movies as A Few Good Men and The Farnsworth Invention and TV series like The West Wing and The Newsroom, his words sing like a musical symphony. In my opinion, he’s the Steven Sondheim of the written word.
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Based on true events, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) takes us on a journey of an extraordinary chunk of her life; ping-ponging from her early childhood days of being a hopeful Olympic skier and the relationship with her demanding coach/clinical psychologist father (Kevin Costner) to her rise of being a powerful figure in underground gambling. And all of this centering on acquiring Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), a high-profile lawyer that she wants to take on her case after she is arrested for illegal gambling.

In Charlie’s office, these two have bull sessions discussing her life, how she got into this crazy lifestyle, her tell-all 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, and their strategy for going into court. Y’see, Molly is not only whip-smart, but has a razor-sharp sarcastic wit, and has a secret vendetta. When her acerbic boss (Jeremy Strong) introduced her to his underground high-stakes poker game full of celebrities, CEO’s, sports figures, rock stars, and more, she quickly assimilated herself into that world, learning all she can and made mucho dinero.

Seizing an opportunity, she finagles the group away–by way of major celebrity Player X (Michael Cera)–to her own underground high-stakes poker game and boom! She’s now in charge, making major bank and getting major players. But even when you’re running a totally legit game with NO drugs or prostitution, something’s bound to go wrong, right? Soon Molly gets gypped and, facing her moment of truth, heads for NYC and the über-rich of Long Island. Through her savvy marketing and hiring Playboy Playmates as eye-candy hostesses, she soon opens a whopping $250K buy-in poker game and starts attracting filthy rich players… even the Russian mob!

But, as in all gambling ventures of this sort, the price of fame and easy money comes at a price. Molly gets into drugs to cope with it all, she’s forced to “rake” (take a commission from the players) and, worse yet, get in bed (figuratively) with the local Russian Mafia. But all that comes crashing down when the FBI comes calling and Molly’s world and assets are history. Adapting the book, prolific writer Sorkin has done the impossible for a first-time director, and made a movie of depth and meticulous detail, that I cannot praise this film enough.

Sorkin utilizes a grab-bag full of directorial styles: straight-forward, smash-edits and dazzling jump-cuts, and even inter-weaves poker hand and mathematical chart information to let us, the audience, “in” on the action. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg; it’s his delicious, exquisite, eargasm-of-words you came to hear. NOBODY writes like Sorkin writes! Lightning fast conversational dialogue with an over-lapping urgency that demands your attention to listen to every word, every turn of phrase, every nuanced pronunciation. And, by God, Sorkin does not disappoint with this masterful script (Best Screenplay, anybody?).

But a screenplay is only as good as the actors that speak it, and Elba & Chastian are electric in their roles, handling the Sorkin-isms with unabashed clarity and resolve. Look for Elba’s ripping third act rant and Costner’s heartbreaking monologue to Molly to be examples of how awesome this movie is. The story, based on the incredible true life accounts, never falters in the 2 hrs and 20 min. run time (which you never feel, BTW), leaving you wanting more; a rare gift in movies these days. Chastain embodies Bloom, a powerful woman that isn’t afraid to show the cracks in her veneer, while Elba radiates with charm as her would-be lawyer, teetering on the edge of doubt.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

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There have been some great movies surrounding the game of poker: Rounders, Maverick, Casino Royale, and others, but they all owe their allegiance to the one that started it all starring the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, and 30’s gangster icon, Edward G. Robinson.
 
In the world of five-card-stud poker there is none better than elderly suave and sophisticated Lancey Howard (Robinson) who, by chance, is swinging by New Orleans for some action. Also in town is a lone wolf player who is ready to take on the old man. He’s Eric Stoner, but everyone calls him the Cincinnati Kid (McQueen) and he’s the best there is at five-card-stud poker… just ask his long-suffering demure girlfriend, Christian (Tuesday Weld) or his manager, Shooter (Karl Malden), a former ace poker player.
 
While Howard’s in town, he guts wealthy, but vindictive William Slade (Rip Torn) for several thousand in a ‘friendly little game’. Wanting revenge, Slade pulls the markers on Shooter and blackmails him to stack the deck against Howard when he deals in the BIG game against him and the Kid. This way Slade can place a sizeable bet against the Kid and recoup his recent loss. But is the Kid ready to face such a worthy adversary? He’s nervous for the first time, Christian is bugging him for marriage, and Shooters gold-digging super-hot wife (Ann-Margaret) is putting some serious moves on him.
 
The day of the BIG game arrives and, after several days worth of playing with four other players, it’s down to the Kid and Howard. Thousands in cash on the table, cigar smoke filling the room, and friends watching in awed anticipation. The tension is palpable. But during a much needed sleeping break, the Kid tells Shooter he knows he’s been dealing for him and asks for a different dealer. In the climatic showdown with a new dealer and the Kid on a winning streak, it looks like Howard has finally met his match. Until that final hand where the Kid, thinking that Howard couldn’t possibly have a straight flush, bets it all and. . .
 
Well, in one version, the camera just freeze-frames on his face, and you have to guess what happens, but in all others, the Kid loses (sad emoji). A standard screenplay by blacklisted writer Ring Lardner, Jr. (MASH) and Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and elevated to new heights by the wonderful director Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof). The action at the poker tables is excellent and the actors make it look all too real, especially McQueen, who was more of an action hero on screen. Look for legendary nightclub singer Cab Calloway (he sang in the Blues Brothers) as one the poker players. Oh, and that cock fight they show in Act two? Let’s just say the ASPCA wasn’t around back then.
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