Tag Archives: C+

MOLLY’S GAME

Producer: Mark Gordon, Amy Pascal and Matt Jackson
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d'Arcy, Chris O'Dowd, J.C. MacKenzie, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jeremy Strong, Matthew D. Matteo, Joe Keery, Natalie Krill and Claire Rankin
Studio: STXFilms

C+

Aaron Sorkin, long one of Hollywood’s premier writers, assumes directorial duties for the first time with “Molly’s Game,” which he fashioned from the memoir of Molly Bloom, who ran high-stakes poker games that made her rich before she was charged with racketeering and threatened with a long prison term. Sorkin proves as sharp and flashy a director as he is a writer, and he’s fortunate to have a strong cast, including Jessica Chastain, for his ensemble. But while glitzy and energetically put together by a trio of editors (Alan Baumgartner, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer), Sorkin’s movie ultimately fails to score a winning hand.

That’s largely because the basic story isn’t all that compelling despite the zest with which Sorkin tells it, especially when it stumbles clumsily into pop psychology. He fashions the narrative overall as an extended flashback arising from the preparations for a “present day” arraignment after her arrest by the feds—Bloom’s conversations with her reluctant lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). They in turn trigger her admittedly self-justifying recollections of how things have come to such a head.

In this reconstruction Bloom (played by Jessica Chastain, who narrates much of the tale in the brusque, biting rat-a-tat manner Sorkin favors) is brought up by her demanding, imperious father Larry (Kevin Costner), a psychologist and coach, to be a great skier with an eye on an Olympic medal. Unfortunately, a freak accident ends her career on the slopes, and she flees to California, where she takes a job as assistant to semi-shady real estate guy Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who runs a big-money poker game at the Cobra Room (an adjustment from the Viper Room) on the side. There wealthy guys met weekly to put up big bets, chief among them a famous actor, referred to merely as Player X (Michael Cera), whose very presence attracts others to the table. (Though never officially revealed, the actual actor has been identified in some sources as Tobey Maguire.) Bloom learns the trade by serving as overseer-gatekeeper of the games, and eventually takes over the operation from Keith, shifting the locale from the bar to a swanky hotel suite complete with amenities.

The first hour of the film concentrates on this California episode, including subplots about players like Bad Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), who insists on playing despite losing big, and Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), a good player who loses his cool—and lots of cash—when he’s bested in a hand by Brad. It’s probable that poker aficionados will appreciate all the card action—which Sorkin and his cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen portray spiffily, sometimes even employing graphic overlays—more than those of us not up on the rules of the game. But happily the script concentrates more on the human side of things, which reaches a boiling point when Player X reveals that he has been manipulating the games to some extent by bankrolling Eustice. When Molly orders him to stop, he uses his clout to seize control of the game and end her profitable business.

That shifts the scene to New York, where Molly employs her varied skills to set up a new game that soon attracts East Coast swells. All goes nicely until she not only begins taking drugs along with money from the operation in illegal ways she’d studiously avoided up to now, but decides to run with a suggestion from a seen-better-days acquaintance (Chris O’Dowd) that she recruit players from the Russian mob. That proves an extremely bad idea, putting her not only in physical peril but in the sights of the feds, who want to pressure her for the goods about her regulars. But she’s too much of a stand-up person to turn informant, though it takes a deus ex machine-style intervention from none other than dear old dad to explain why—a misguided ”Robebud” moment that drags on and on rather than being disposed of quickly, as Welles did. That leads to a courtroom finale with a judge (Graham Greene) who proves more interested in justice than legal gamesmanship.

“Molly’s Game” is on one level a portrait of a strong, resilient woman, and the formidable Chastain certainly plays her as such, spitting out Sorkin’s finely-crafted dialogue with the cool intensity it mostly demands, the occasional maudlin moments apart. But ultimately it’s not far removed from her performance last year in “Miss Sloan,” nor—in the end—is Sorkin’s film conspicuously deeper than that one was. Elba’s role doesn’t provide him with much substance beyond a couple of big Sorkin speeches, but he handles those well. Of the supporting players Costner is a one-note bore, but Cera brings an intriguing undercurrent of venomous meanness to Player X, Camp some pathos to Eustice, and Greene his usual ease to the judge.

One can see what drew Sorkin to Molly Bloom’s story. He loves explaining complicated matters in rapid-fire fashion, and it allows him to lay out the complexities of Bloom’s poker operation in much the same way as he did those of baseball’s draft in “Moneyball” or Facebook in “The Social Network” (or the workings of Washington in “The West Wing,” for that matter). It also provided him with a fistful of characters into whose mouths he could insert his hyper-articulate, theatrical dialogue. And as a first-time director, it offered him the opportunity to juggle and juxtapose multiple plot threads, using quick edits and overlaps to show his mastery of the medium—as well as his ability to draw strong work from actors.

In the end, however, the story of Molly Bloom proves a pretty slender reed on which to hang the themes of female empowerment and legal chicanery that he wants to explore. In the end the word game feels just as applicable to Sorkin’s movie as to Bloom’s business—ultimately the film represents intricacy without much depth and style without much substance.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Producer: Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Kevin J. Walsh, Chris Cl;ark, Ridley Scott and Mark Huffam
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: David Scarpa
Stars: Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton, Andrew Buchan, Giuseppe Bonifati, Marco Leonardi, Nicolas Vaporidis, Charlie Shotwell, Kit Cranston and Maya Kelly
Studio: Sony/TriStar

C+

Ridley Scott’s film about the machinations behind the months-long, desperate efforts to free the grandson of J. P. Getty, then the richest man in the world, after the boy’s kidnapping in 1973, may be remembered mostly for its uniquely convoluted production. As most viewers will be aware, “All the Money in the World” had been completed with Kevin Spacey playing Getty, but after the actor was accused of sexual misconduct and shunned as a result, Scott elected to jettison all his scenes and quickly reshoot them with Christopher Plummer, while adhering to the original release date. He succeeded.

That’s a remarkable achievement, certainly more so than the actual movie Scott has ultimately crafted—a visually elegant parable of misguided wealth, but one considerably less exciting than one might hope, and not always in accord with the historical record. One admires Scott’s ability to reedit the film in response to circumstances more than the actual result of his having done so, which amounts to a rather thrill-free thriller, shot in gray, somber tones by Dariusz Wolski but slackly edited by Claire Simpson.

The picture, scripted by David Scarpa from a book by John Pearson, begins with the abduction of sixteen-year old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), then living a bohemian life alone in Italy, from a seedy street in Rome. Trundled off in a van, he’s transported to a mountain cell in rural Calabria, where he’s chained to the wall while his captors, the most prominent of whom is a fellow called Cinquanta (Romain Duris), inform his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams, for some reason adopting an accent that makes her sound vaguely like Katharine Hepburn) that he’s being held for $17,000,000 ransom.

Cue a flashback that provides the familial history. Young Paul is the grandson of billionaire J. P. Getty Sr. (Christopher Plummer, no relation to the younger Plummer), who—we’re shown—made his fortune in the Saudi oil fields and wants to part with none of it, except to purchase the fabulous artworks that will eventually find their way to the museum that now bears his name. The old man had been estranged from John Paul Jr. (Andrew Buchan), an alcoholic failure with whom Gail had three children (Paul being the oldest), until Getty Sr. for some reason offered him a job at the family firm.

The elder Getty welcomed the family to Rome, where he took a particular liking to seven-year old Paul (Charlie Shotwell), who took an eager interest in helping the old man draft dismissive responses to pleading letters from folks begging for money. In one of the picture’s eeriest, more effective scenes, he even took the boy to visit the ruins of Tivoli, the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s villa; there he explains to the lad that he actually was Hadrian in an earlier incarnation.

Unfortunately J.P. Jr. proved unequal to his job’s demands, being more interested in drugs and drink than work. So Gail divorced him, taking full custody of their children in lieu of any payment from the Gettys except for child support. So now, back in 1973, Harris found herself confronted with a huge ransom demand for her son, but no money to pay it. Naturally she approached her former father-in-law for the cash, but he refused to provide anything, acting not only as a result of his penny-pinching ways but because—as he explained publicly—paying would only invite the kidnapping of his other grandchildren.

He does, however, appoint his fixer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-CIA man, to look into the matter. Chase uses his contacts to secure a meeting with some Red Brigade leaders—thought to have been the perpetrators. But they inform him that young Paul used to talk about staging his own abduction to extract money from his grandfather. When told that, the elder Getty is even more resolved not to fork anything over.

That causes consternation among the kidnappers, some of whom are actually killed in a police raid, but not before selling young Paul to a more brutal gang leader, who famously sent the boy’s severed ear to an Italian paper as a ghoulish proof of life. That finally induced J.P. Sr. to come up with some cash—though much less than the criminals demanded, and with strings attached. The boy was eventually released some five months after he was originally taken.

As cobbled together by Scarpa and Scott, much of “Money” consists of long sequences of Gail and Chase trying to work together to find out what’s happened to Paul and secure his release, juxtaposed with scenes of the captive Paul and Cinquanta, who grows increasingly protective of the boy. Williams is good at playing the cultivated, concerned mother, and young Plummer and Duris handle their side of the equation well, with the ear-severing scene registering the horror of the bloody deed. But most of these portions of the movie are curiously flat. Even those that seem dramatic addenda to the actual course of events—like young Paul’s escape attempt, and particularly the big chase sequence at the close that’s apparently invented out of whole cloth—don’t register as strongly as they should. (An episode in which Gail tries to raise the cash she needs by selling a supposedly valuable statuette the elder Getty had once given Paul does, however, achieve a darkly humorous tone.)

Wahlberg, moreover, seems completely miscast as Chase, weighing down every scene he’s in. His discomfort is evident in his frequent pairings with Williams, but becomes even clearer in the few he shares with Christopher Plummer who, however short the preparation time he had for the film, delivers a magisterially creepy performance as J.P. Sr. It’s a capstone to a career that in his twilight years has really become golden, a series of outstanding turns in pictures that are rarely worthy of them. He’s the primary reason to see “All the Money in the World,” though one can’t but dream of the possibility of someday comparing his treatment of the part with that of the discredited Spacey.

Scarpa and Scott engage in another bit of dramatic license when, in addition to fashioning that prolonged chase to make Paul’s release more cinematic, they suggest that J.P. Sr.’s death virtually coincided with it: actually he lived until 1976. They also decline to report the tragic life that Paul lived after his experience.

In sum, this “Money” isn’t all it could be; it’s a disappointment in view of the talent involved, despite stellar work from the elder Plummer and, to a lesser extent, Williams. Perhaps the upcoming television mini-series “Trust,” starring Donald Sutherland as J.P. Sr. and Hilary Swank as Gail, and directed by Danny Boyle, will prove more satisfying in the long run.