MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

December 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is like a rap battle with proper grammar and no down-beat. He must have been abused by pregnant pauses and moments of silence as a kid, as his screen banter gives new meaning to ‘the fast and the furious’. This latest is his directorial debut, but his loquacious diatribes have previously tested our attention spans in such films as STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and of course, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he won an Oscar).

Molly Bloom’s memoir is the adapted source material, and though her story might be a bit challenging to show, there is certainly much to tell … which is right in Mr. Sorkin’s wheelhouse. The verbal sparring amongst characters rarely pauses, and when it does, we have Molly immediately jumping in as narrator and guide.  The ultra-talented Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) takes on the Molly role, and narrates her back story at break-neck speed (there is a pun in there). We learn her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushed her hard as a kid and she became off-the-charts intelligent while also being a world-class downhill skier.

A freak accident ended her athletic career, and after deciding to delay law school, Molly found herself working for a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Soon he got her involved with hosting the high-stakes underground poker games he ran for local celebrities, and being a quick study, she was soon running and managing her own games. When Molly was forced to take her game to New York, the players transformed from movie stars and professional athletes to business magnates, hedge-fund managers and, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.

Don’t mistake this for a poker movie. Cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly’s story, and Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly’s brilliant strategy to build her business. Of course, there wouldn’t be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. Less than a decade in, Molly is arrested in an overblown FBI sting featuring 17 armed agents at her pre-dawn door. The charges ranged from money-laundering to hedge-fund fraud to dealings with the Russian mob.

The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reticent to take what appears to be an unwinnable case. The Sorkin back-and-forth kicks into full gear as Molly and Jaffey expertly verbally spar until she convinces him that she is adamant in not wanting anyone else to get hurt – even if it might save her proverbial rear-end.

Although Sorkin doesn’t name names, it takes very little research effort to determine some of the featured players in Molly’s games. Hints are provided such as “green screen”, New York Yankee player, and Oscar winner. Michael Cera is identified only as Player X, but it’s quite obvious he is playing the noted green screen actor, and he does a nice job in a small, but vital role. The rest of the cast offers up colorful work: Jeremy Strong as Molly’s first boss, a very funny Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy as “Bad Brad”, Justin Kirk as a rock star, Angela Gots as the wise table dealer, and the always great Bill Camp as Harlan, whose story highlights the true risk in this supposed game of skill. Graham Greene has a nice moment as the judge hearing Molly’s case, and it’s likely the first time he and Kevin Costner have appeared in the same film since DANCES WITH WOLVES.

At times the film and story bear a slight resemblance to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but mostly it’s one woman’s journey through entrepreneurship and a web of legalities. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is used as a comparable for protecting one’s own name, as well as a life lesson for Jaffey’s young daughter. Writer Sorkin predictably surpasses first time director Sorkin, and never is that more obvious than a cringe-inducing father/daughter scene on a park bench near the end of the film. It’s designed to wrap up Molly’s inspiration and influence, but plays like a cheap Hollywood ploy to mop up loose ends. Molly deserved better, and fortunately most of the movie delivers.

watch the trailer:


STEVE JOBS (2015)

November 5, 2015

steve jobs Greetings again from the darkness. Does it take the smartest guy in the room to write about the smartest guy in the room? Probably not, but as Aaron Sorkin shows in writing about Steve Jobs, it can’t hurt. It’s an impressive filmmaking team that, in addition to Sorkin, includes director Danny Boyle, and a cast of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen, John Ortiz and Perla Haney-Jardine … that’s a lot of talent, prestige, and award-winners.

The film is based on the terrific authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson (which I recommend). Rather than tackle the entirety of the book or Jobs’ life, a theatrical approach is taken with three distinct acts covering 16 years centered on product roll-outs: Macintosh, 1984; NeXT, 1988; and iMac, 1998. You might notice that two of those products are considered major flops, but the focus is on the persona of Jobs, not the performance of the products. Director Boyle makes his presence felt by filming appropriately in each of the segments: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998. He also brings a sweeping beauty to the visuals … whether it’s Jobs storming through a hallway, or the maze of activity backstage at each roll-out.

In today’s world, it’s humorous to witness the cult-like atmosphere that develops around Apple products, and it’s equally comical to see the small-minded types who refuse to credit Jobs or Apple for catapulting consumer technology ahead by decades, and for achieving levels of financial success never before reached. Although it’s difficult to separate Jobs from Apple, Sorkin and Boyle are very clear in their focus on the man. In fact, the movie could be viewed as a kind of dysfunctional family – both genetic family and work family.

Rogen plays Steve Wozniak and Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, both part of the original Apple team with Jobs. There are some pointed exchanges between these three characters, with the most eye-raising being when Woz asks Jobs, “What do you do?” It’s the best display of what makes Jobs different than others, and his answer is one of the most disheartening compliments ever heard. There are multiple extended sequences with Jobs and his quasi-father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). These two rip through Sorkin dialogue the way Michael Jordan once sliced through defenses. Most cruel are the exchanges between Jobs and Chrisann Brennan (Ms. Waterston) – the mother of his daughter Lisa (though he refused to acknowledge being her father).

For those familiar with the role of Joanna Hoffman in Jobs’ career, you will be duly impressed with the performance of Kate Winslet … playing the only one who could consistently stand up to the relentless pressure and lofty expectations.

There are soft references to (future) iPods and iPads, and Jobs’ break-up with Apple is dramatized, but it’s the individual scenes of interaction with others that makes this entertaining and challenging to watch. There is nothing likable about Steve Jobs the man, but Fassbender’s fine performance does allow glimpses of humanity beneath the God-like aura Jobs presented. Was Jobs a genius? Was he an extreme social misfit?  Was he a cruel family man due to his botched adoption as a kid? Regardless of where you place him in the realm of technology development, it’s difficult to argue with Woz’s proclamation that one can be “decent AND gifted”. It’s not binary.

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MONEYBALL

September 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While reading “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, I never once considered what it might look like as a movie.  And I am the kind of guy who looks at a mailbox and wonders if a movie about a mailman might be interesting (Costner proved me wrong).  If you are a baseball fan, you should see this movie. If you are not a baseball fan, the movie works very well as a metaphor for any business maverick who takes a risk and analyzes their company or industry from an entirely new perspective. The game of baseball was over a hundred years old when Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and friends turned the institution on its ear.

Mr. Lewis spent most of the 2002 season with the Oakland team and had full access to GM Billy Beane, Asst GM Paul DePodesta, and their process in putting together a team that would contend for the American League title … all under the severe handicap of ridiculous salary constraints placed by team owners.

 In this movie, Brad Pitt is spot on as Beane – the cocky, tobacco spitting former jock trying desperately to put his stamp on the institution of baseball. Due to some lawsuit of which I know nothing, the DePodesta role is renamed Peter Brand and is played by Jonah Hill, who looks absolutely nothing like Mr. DePodesta (who played baseball at Harvard). Despite this, Mr. Hill does an terrific job of becoming the statistical whiz who can analyze data and place value on players … a skill he is obsessed with even 10 years later.

 Watching Beane trying to communicate the point of change to the old school scouts is simply priceless and painful. Years of scouting based on body type and girlfriend ranking is replaced by statistical data spit out by Brand’s computer. The real fun comes when the team’s field Manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), flashes his bah-humbug attitude, bucks Beane’s system and continues coaching old school … from the gut. It’s not until Beane takes away all other options that Howe is forced to follow the new plan.

Baseball fans know that Bill James is the godfather of sabermetrics in baseball. I was happy to see him receive props in the movie.  For years his formulas and calculations were ignored and scoffed at by owners, managers and scouts. Thanks to the A’s success, ALL teams now utilize some form of sabermetrics combined with old fashioned scouting. Every measurable event in a game is tracked and results are analyzed. Many fans say it has sucked the joy out of the game. Others say it has provided opportunities for players previously ignored. I prefer to look at it as the same in any industry … everyone looks for a competitive advantage. Never ignore a tool or approach that can make your company more profitable or your team more competitive.

Being a long time Texas Ranger fan, I must mention some of the ties to this story. The Rangers current manager, Ron Washington (portrayed by Brent Jennings), was an infield coach on those Oakland A’s and gets a few scenes. Grady Fuson was the Head Scout for the A’s and later came to the Rangers as co-GM or Asst GM (depending who you ask) but had a very limited stay. Mike Venafro was a relief pitcher for the A’s who gets traded in 2002 so they can pick up a more valued reliever to take his spot (Rincon). It should also be noted that current Rangers GM Jon Daniels and his talented staff have a place for sabermetrics and their formula has worked.

The director of the movie is Bennett Miller, who was responsible for the excellent Capote, which also starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Bennett’s DP here is Wally Pfister, who works frequently with the great Christopher Nolan. Pfister’s camera work is superb. The amazing writing team of Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin provide a script with sharp dialogue and just enough baseball lingo so that everyone can follow. Supporting actors include: Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) as Scott Hatteberg, poster child for sabermetrics; Robin Wright as Beane’s ex-wife; and fantastic writer/director Spike Jonze (came0) as Wright’s zenned-out new husband and the polar opposite of Beane.

 I need to make a point about the performance of Jonah Hill. His movies Superbad and Get Him to the Greek are not my type of movies so I was never a big fan. That changed when I saw Cyrus last year. During the Q&A after this screening, Mr. Hill pointed out that Cyrus was the bridge that allowed him to be cast in this movie … his bridge to drama. He went on to state that his acting heroes are Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray because they have had successful careers in both comedy and drama. I can honestly say that it is easy to see Jonah Hill having a Bill Murray type career, especially since he has now lost so much weight – a significant weight loss after the filming of Moneyball. He is no longer the funny fat guy. He is a talented actor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are drawn to movies about visionaries OR you are a baseball fan and/or business person

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for over-the-top action sequences or a pure baseball flick

watch the trailer:


THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

October 2, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a film with good genes. It’s based on Ben Mezrich‘s novel “The Accidental Billionaires”, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men) and directed by one of the best directors working today, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac). The film is dialogue driven and my advice is to shift your ears into turbo-mode to keep up. These Harvard types never stammer and are quite speedy in making their oh-so-clever points.

This film is not so much the history of Facebook as it is a glimpse into the individuals behind the idea. Foremost, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg (played with rapid-fire tunnel vision by Jesse Eisenberg). The programming guru behind the code, Zuckerberg is depicted as a guy who is not just socially inept, but also unaware of social mores and code. I am not sure if he is best described as a prodigy, genius or even (possibly) a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome. Whatever he is/was, he became a billionaire in his early 20’s by proving he could put together the world’s dominant social network while having no redeeming social or relationship skills of his own. Fascinating.

Zuckerberg’s best and only friend (and business partner) is Eduardo Saverin (played by the next Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield). Saverin fronted the money to get Facebook started and was one of the parties who brought suit against Zuckerberg, claiming he was cheated out his place in the company.

The third key player is the infamous Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake). Founder of Napster and Plaxo, Parker manages to get his hooks into Zuckerberg and apparently was behind the snubbing of Saverin. This is the most charismatic role in the film (and real life), yet also the role that may have the most dramatic license taken in the film.

The story is told in non-linear form, weaving multiple depositions from different lawsuits. One includes the Winklevoss twins from Harvard who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. They later settled for millions.

As I said, this is not so much a history of Facebook as it is a display of the characters involved. These are all brilliant people who are also ignorant to the ways of the world. It seems they all have significantly different goals, yet never really stop to agree on strategy. Instead, the site growth is non-stop, as is the back-stabbing.

Interestingly, the film uses a girl (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene as the single biggest influence on Zuckerberg’s brainstorm. Her rejection of his self-centered speed-talking kicks his creative wheels into motion and his relentless energy never slows for the rest of the story. One thing is clear, Zuckerberg did not single-handedly create Facebook and there is little doubt some key people were given short straws along the way. No way to discern what really happened as all that was battled out behind closed doors in sealed records and settlements. What we do know is that Facebook now has over 500 million users worldwide.

This is an extremely well crafted movie, though in my opinion, none of the acting is up to the script. It’s a film that provides enough insight into the players and enough entertainment for the ticket. That’s really sufficient. Some are proclaiming this as a Best Picture contender.  It may very well get enough momentum to be nominated, but here’s hoping this isn’t the year’s best.  Coming next … David Fincher is set to direct and Rooney Mara is cast as Lisbeth in the Americanized version of the fabulous Swedish hit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So enjoy this one and look forward to that!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the 500 million Facebook users OR you thrill to the challenge of high-voltage, college-genius dialogue that always instantaneously delivers the single best comeback possible.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think every person has redeeming value OR you have to ask “What is Facebook?”