The Social Network

Molly’s Game

The saying goes, if they wrote a book about your life, would anyone read it? Part of what makes the human experience beautiful is its variation. Two wildly different lives can both be compelling. For instance, Nelson Mandela and Al Capone don’t have much in common, but I’d watch a movie or read a book about either one of them. If you reduce a film to its most essential element, what you have is a story, and Molly’s is simply a great one.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper’s Wife) was a competitive skier and former Olympian, an amazing feat by most standards. Like many Olympians, her father (Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures) doubled as coach/mentor – wielding influence that was instrumental to her success, yet stifling in its effect on her psychological makeup. The problem with many athletes or other uber talented people is that they run the risk of tying their entire self-identity to this one facet of their being, their gift. When it disappears, they’re often left asking, what now?

 Written by the incomparable Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Molly’s Game is replete with the auteur’s smart, succinct dialogue, often delivered through rapid-fire, omniscient narration. The film begins with the pivotal moment that changed the trajectory of Molly’s life, the last day she skied competitively. Through flashback Sorkin depicts her tragic final run, one that ends in a crash at the bottom of a hill instead of the medal podium. This opening scene was critical in establishing Molly’s relentless drive, type A personality, and her resilience. Not to mention it was just a fascinating look into a sport I know very little about. I always feel a bit smarter after watching Sorkin’s work, and Molly was expertly fleshed out from the beginning.

Forced to reinvent herself, Molly charts a new course, delaying law school to move to Hollywood. There she takes a job as an office assistant and moonlights as a cocktail waitress. Her boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong, The Big Short) runs a poker game for a collection of celebrities, including actors, rappers, athletes and titans of tech. He recruits Molly to assist, and soon she’s collecting hefty tips from rich gamers and rubbing elbows with A-listers. Her voracious intellect demands that she learn everything about poker, from the terminology to player “tells.” After a rift with Dean, she uses her newly acquired skillset to begin running her own games, and soon Molly’s game is the hot ticket in town.

By carefully skirting illegality, Molly was able to keep her nose clean. But when circumstances dictated a different clientele for the games, she runs afoul of the FBI. Again, Sorkin effectively uses pace and sequencing to paint a picture, establishing certain crucial events and expounding upon them later in the film. Chastain was endearing as the flawed Bloom, seeming to act out of necessity rather than greed. She relished the success of the game, but it never felt like she wanted more than what was owed and fair. It could be said that she facilitated people’s addiction, but can’t the same be said of casinos? She didn’t take money for the games (known as a “rake”), she didn’t employ muscle to collect from people who couldn’t pay up, and she even tried to talk the more degenerate amongst them from gambling their lives away.

Chastain is joined primarily by Costner and Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok) as her attorney Charlie Jaffey. The two actors buttress Chastain with earnest, warm performances – Costner as the domineering yet regretful father forced to revisit his mistakes in parenting, and Elba as her sympathetic advocate. Chastain rightly received a Golden Globe nomination and I’ve been impressed with her since 2010’s The Debt. This film is a bit dialogue heavy to be totally rewatchable, but it was superbly written and performed.

 Grade: A-

Jobs

After viewing The Social Network a few years ago, I felt inspired by Mark Zuckerburg’s story and was encouraged to follow my own dreams.  I thought the story of Steve Jobs might similarly inspire me, but after viewing Jobs, I felt no such inspiration.  Perhaps the filmmakers intended to portray Steve Jobs as a complex, charismatic innovator – and to a certain extent, they succeeded.  However, it seems to me that he could also be an asshole, and that was one of the salient aspects of his personality that stuck with me.

The movie begins in 1974 at Reed College, where Steve (Ashton Kutcher, New Year’s Eve) is a former student.  He bums around campus, occasionally sitting in on classes despite being a dropout.  He has close friends and a girlfriend, but his social interaction with others is strange, and his emotional maturity seems stunted.  Very early on he seems unaware of others’ feelings, but displays a keen curiosity that draws others to him.  In some ways he both repels and attracts other human beings, which is an odd feat.

Eventually Steve begins working for Atari.  The superior quality of his work makes him an asset to his supervisor, and he challenges Steve to improve one of their popular arcade games.  Steve enlists his friend, Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad, Love & Other Drugs) to help him with the project.  Steve was promised $5,000 for the successful completion of the task and told his buddy that he’d give him half of the money.  Only Steve told his friend that he’d only been promised $700 for the work; thus giving his friend a paltry $350 for providing invaluable assistance.  This may seem like an insignificant act, but I found it abhorrent and it both underscored and foreshadowed Steve’s social ineptitude.

While Wozniak assisted with the Atari project, Steve observed a rudimentary keyboard at his house one day.  Intrigued, he wanted to know more about this device that would ultimately serve as the prototype for the modern personal computer.  At the time it was only a keyboard that needed to be connected to a monitor, but eventually a local retailer encouraged Steve to provide both the keyboard and monitor for sale as one product.  I credit Jobs with brilliant innovation, but he certainly has others to thank for inspiring groundwork that was laid years ago.

The movie chronicles Apple Computer from its inception, through Steve’s monumentally successful tenure during the early 80s, and through his ousting by the company’s board of directors in 1985.  Though Apple was immensely popular and successful in the early 80s, Steve never seemed motivated by profit, but by creativity.  His work ethic was relentless, and he demanded excellence.  However, his loyalty was virtually nonexistent, and his results-driven approach to business appeared downright callous at times.  This is a man who screwed his friends and denied his child’s existence for the first two years of her life while her mother lived on welfare.

Perhaps these asshole tendencies are an attendant personality trait of genius; I’m not sure.  I just found that the movie didn’t portray Jobs as this likable, interesting man that he actually may have been.  Ashton Kutcher’s performance was uneven and inconsistent.  One minute he perfectly embodied Jobs, and the next minute he seemed to be imitating him, as exemplified by Jobs’ trademark shuffling gait.  I think Kutcher approached the role with the requisite seriousness that a biopic requires, but I can’t quite call his performance a success.  If anything, the movie may encourage people to learn more about this enigmatic visionary.  Unfortunately, I was left wanting more.  Grade: B-

 

 

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

When it comes to words, I’ll admit that I have a flair for the dramatic.  When I love something, the superlatives flow. Not too long ago I watched a movie on Netflix streaming and proclaimed it one of the best movies I’d ever seen in my life.  That’s that flair for the dramatic I was talking about.  But this time I meant it.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a slice of noveau noir that any Hitchcock fan would love.  Even the Swedish dialogue and English subtitles didn’t bother me, and that’s saying a lot.

Based on the popular Millennium series’ book of the same name by author Steig Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the harrowing tale of Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker with a disturbing psychological and criminal history.  Out on some sort of parole, she augments her legit income by moonlighting as a free-lance hacker.  In this capacity she encounters journalist Mikael Blomkvist, while performing a background check on behalf of a wealthy financier named Henrik Vanger.  Vanger wants the journalist to find his long lost niece but must ensure that Blomkvist is fit for the job, given some recent legal troubles.  Lisbeth is hacking Blomkvist, so when he begins to investigate the Vanger disappearance, she does too.  Eventually they team up for what proves to be a mysterious journey into the depths of human depravity.  Lisbeth is dark and brooding on the surface, but her exterior belies a compassion and fortitude that most of the world doesn’t see.  Fiercely resilient and protective, she is a survivor in every sense of the word.  Her physical appearance is a study in contrasts: a thin seemingly fragile frame juxtaposed with harsh piercings and a jagged Mohawk.  Jet-black hair and alabaster skin complete the shocking picture.  In turn, Blomkvist becomes an ally, friend, lover and protector.  His warmth and her initial icy disposition eventually meld together in a natural way, and their chemistry is palpable.

I apologize for rambling on like that, but I needed to convey all of these things about the original version so you’d understand why the updated version from David Fincher (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) just doesn’t measure up.  The Swedish version was released in 2009.  Are we really remaking 2 year old movies now?  Why, because arrogant Americans can’t bear to read subtitles?  The Swedish version was amazing, and I can understand a phenomenal filmmaker like Fincher wanting to introduce the story to new audiences.  However, when something is fantastic, you have to stay true to it because it’s inherently difficult to improve something that’s already great.  There is source material to work with here.  I have not read the books in the Millennium series, but everyone says that they are fantastic.  Great literary material and a great original cinematic interpretation.  Yet I feel that Fincher found a way to come up short, by comparison.  I saw the movie with two friends who had both read the books but not seen the Swedish version.  One really liked Fincher’s take (I think b/c she had nothing to compare it to) and the other didn’t think it stayed true to the books.  That, my friends spells disappointment.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the movie itself, I want to be clear that I thought the casting and the performances were excellent.  Rooney Mara (The Social Network) and Daniel Craig (Dream House) were great in their roles.  I attribute any lack of chemistry between the two to Fincher, not to their acting.  The original movie did a better job of fleshing out each character’s background and motivation.  We understood why they were drawn to each other and why Lisbeth was so broken after all that she’d endured.  She was a tormented character, and that was not conveyed as ably in the remake.

Perhaps if I hadn’t seen the original version I could let this one stand on its own merits, but I just can’t.  Some things are better left untouched.  When I watched the original I felt like I was watching something special; it was enthralling.  This 2011 version was just another day at the movies: good, but not great.  Try to see the Swedish version first, if you haven’t read the book.  2009 version: A+ 2011 version: B