Molly’s Game (2017): Memoirs of a “Poker Princess” – Not (Review)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY'S GAME

Writer, producer and director Aaron Sorkin takes Molly Bloom’s memoirs “Molly’s Game” and turns it into a fascinating look at the “poker princess.” The press dubbed Ms. Bloom this when her case became public and as the character says in the film, she was not a princess because, like the song says, this woman worked hard for the money.

Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba (as a fictional character not present the book) and Michael Cera, as a thinly veiled Tobey Maguire, Molly’s Game is a more fanciful version of events. Certainly the movie follows the chain of events pretty accurately, although it does deviate from the low-key facts as presented by the real Ms. Bloom.

There are some things created for the big screen adaptation. For instance, the antagonistic relationship with Molly’s father, the skiing accident (never happened) and the complete lack of any relationships are all items dreamed up by Sorkin to add a little spice to the proceedings. (Just as Elba’s character, Charlie Jaffey was also a “construct” to help the viewer to “get behind” the rather strong female lead.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom to perfection. In all likelihood no other actress in Hollywood at the moment could have filled the designer stilettos of the female lead so well. The actress gives the role a solid truth, whether  depicting her early awe at the player’s she meets at “The Game” or when she later become jaded and rather un-enamored with the whole thing, she sells it perfectly.

Elba is spot on at the invented devil’s advocate who ultimately takes on the legal system and the US government on her behalf. It is disappointing to learn that there was no Jaffey in the book and that this legal guardian of justice is just a device to keep the audience on Molly’s side. This does not detract from the character at all, however, like the invented accident that turns Bloom from an Olympic hopeful to a “Girl Friday” for a rather unpleasant real estate entrepreneur, it helps to move the story along very well.

The film manages to change the names to protect the innocent, like the book, and while Ms. Bloom does “name drop” just a tad – she names only the players who the press “outed” already, if one reads the book, it is clear that Player X (Cera) is Tobey Maguire. (It also comes as no real surprise that the real life Maguire is a pretty nasty bit of work at the card table and away from it.)

Regardless of the changed names and the fictional constructs, Molly’s Game is entertaining and gives us a heroine we can get behind. Astute, charming and a hard worker, Bloom rises, against all odds, to become an essential part of two large poker games; one in New York and the other in LA. (In the book the real life Molly has got a few more games on the side, most notably in the 24 hour city of Las Vegas.)

The film uses a lot of the “professional” jargon associated with poker. For those who know little beyond “flop” and call, this in itself is an education. The chapters are broken down by these terms and Molly herself, via Chastain, explains what many of these terms mean. (This explains part of the appeal of Molly’s Game; our hero taught herself not only how to play poker but all the terms involved.

Molly’s Game can almost be seen as an American success story. One where hard work, charm and a high intelligence quotient makes a corn-fed wannabe Olympic skier one of the top earners in high stakes America. Sorkin excellently leads us down Molly’s path as she first learns LA and then  “The Game.”

We cheer her successes and moan at her setbacks. Chastain and Elba make a splendid double act throughout the film and when her overly competitive father, in the guise of Kevin Costner, shows up at the end, we are genuinely moved.

Molly’s Game is a full 5 star film. (Chastain certainly got my vote for “Best Actress”) Sorkin pleases with his first directorial feature despite deviating from the source material. Chastain sells her real-life character and Elba is, of course, at the top of his game. Cera is brilliantly low-key  as the unpleasant Player X and the rest of the cast all rise to the occasion and shine.

(Keep an eye out for the excellent Irish actor Chris O’Dowd in his cameo as the “only Irishman” that the Russian mob will allow into their card game. He is splendid in this tiny role.)

See this one when it screens in January, you will be glad you did. Molly’s Game is not about a poker princess, but about a hardworking, fast learning young woman who made a mint from men’s greed.

Tombstone (1993): OK Corral and After

I have tried repeatedly to write a review that would do this beleaguered film justice. Each time I start rapping the keyboard on my laptop I can get no further than three paragraphs.

So I sat down today and started researching the film and its subject matter again. I am not a stranger to the town of Tombstone and the disputes and daily arguments between the main factions. I have always had a fascination for the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral and the Earp’s ride of retribution afterwards.

That the gunfight and the events following are almost common knowledge is down to the feuding newspapers of the day. One paper supported the Earp’s and their ‘town’ backers of businesses and traders. The other paper supported the Clanton’s, Sheriff Johnny Behan  and their ‘cattlemen’ supporters.

The film shows this divide from the very beginning. The ‘Cowboys’ were an organised crime outfit that not only rustled cattle, they robbed and murdered and were even thought responsible for the murder of Mexican troops who were on their way to deposit gold,  bullion and Peso’s in the Tombstone banks.

That there was tension between the two factions is a matter of fact. Kurt Russell‘s portrayal of Wyatt Earp is easily the best I’ve ever seen. He hits the right notes of righteousness and weariness of the law business and his intention to settle down with his wife and family around him.

Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton (in the first role where he actually plays a good guy) played their parts equally well. Elliot as the stiff-necked and doomed Earp brother Morgan and Paxton as the eager and righteous (and most experienced of all the brothers in the world of law enforcement in real life) Virgil both help bring this strong willed family to life.

Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Jason Priestly, Val Kilmer and Dana Delany all provide the ambiance and backbone of the film. Kilmer (who lost so much weight to play the consumptive Doc Holliday that he made himself ill) almost stole the show as the man who could not fear death as it was already a constant companion.

Biehn as the over educated yet bestial Johnny Ringo and Boothe as the over bearing Brocius were brilliantly cast as the two ‘main men’ behind the Cowboys gang.

The film looks stunning capturing the colours and hues of a ‘boom town’ in the late 1800’s American west. The sets, the costumes and the props all look great. Overall this film shows the greatest attention to the facts leading up to and following the infamous gunfight. There are a few things that the film makers have chosen to change or gloss over, but the fact remains that this film is pretty damn accurate.

Tombstone. Allen street 1880

The actual gunfight is a perfect example of the ‘liberties’ taken by the film makers. In reality the entire gunfight at the OK Corral lasted under 30 seconds. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne both fled the area when the fighting started and Ike did tell Wyatt that he was not armed, to which Wyatt replied, “Get fighting or get out. [sic]”

No one entered a   photo  studio to be shot down.

Incredibly, most of the important details they got right. Virgil Earp did give Doc Holliday the sawn off shotgun and took his walking stick in return. The Earps entered the vacant lot behind the Corral not expecting a fight, Sheriff Behan who met the Earp’s as they were walking towards the Corral told them that the Clanton’s were not armed.

When Virgil called for the Clanton’s to turn over their weapons and guns were pulled and cocked by the gang Virgil shouted out, ” Hold! I did not mean that (or ‘Hold on! I did not mean that!) and a party from each side opened fire simultaneously.

Behan did attempt to arrest the Earps immediately following the gunfight and Wyatt did indeed say, “I won’t be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away.”

In reality there was a trial and the Earps, as well as Holliday were found innocent of any wrong doing. This was what inflamed the already bitter feud between the Cowboys and the Earps.

That Wyatt Earp and Josephine Marcus were a couple was common knowledge at the time.

Russell’s own feud with Kevin Costner about the film (which Costner was meant to be in) lead to Costner leaving the project and starting up his own version of events in the the mediocre Wyatt Earp (1994). After he left Tombstone, Costner then lead a ‘hate’ campaign against Russell’s film and attempted to prevent it from getting distributed by any major studio.

Suffice to say that history repeated itself with Russell’s Earp’s winning against the nefarious actions of the pretender (Costner). Tombstone opened well and pulled in a decent box office receipt. Costner’s film did not do as well.

I can vaguely remember as a child travelling through Arizona with my parents. We stopped at Tombstone and someone (dammed if I can remember who) took pictures of the OK Corral for our own posterity. For years the entire gunfight has been re-enacted for thousands if not millions of tourists. I have never seen one of these re-enactments. I don’t need to. I can picture the entire thing in my mind.

Of course if I’m feeling lazy, I can always watch Tombstone.

Because folks, it’s about as accurate as you can get.

*If you’d like to read more about the Earp’s and the gunfight at the OK Corral, check out Wikipedia, it’s a good starting point and will reference many different sites for more information.*