Molly's Game

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There were high stakes on the table for Aaron Sorkin’s (The Social Network) directorial debut, his reputation as a renowned writer was on the line. It was well worth the risk, as Molly’s Game, is definitely a must-see. It’s skillfully crafted for those familiar or not with poker, compelling, adrenaline inducing, and with no less than the best, Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) who is just as badass as the character she plays, Molly Bloom. 

Sorkin is hit or miss for some. His scripts are dialogue heavy, which if taken at face value are brilliant considering what a great writer he is, but can be feel preachy. The dialogue is always fast paced and thorough, requiring your eyes and ears to be wide open or else you’re sure to miss a thing or two. Molly’s Game has the same game plan, different story. Sorkin tells Molly Bloom’s story, Olympic skier gone “Poker Princess,” known for running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game in the early 2000’s. At one point the buy in was $250,000 to put it into perspective so this woman didn’t f*** around. The rest is history.

The film doesn’t skip a beat. Sorkin structured the film such that we learned along with Chastain, about poker and how to run a game. Now don’t think for a second you’ll walk out an expert, but point is, the film is very informational, even though your brain might explode. Sorkin gives your brain a break once she begins to run her own game, only to attack your heart next. You do the math on how you’ll feel when men lose $100 million a night. While this fact is true, there are certain parts of the film that aren’t exactly true to life, but it’s understandable why Sorkin felt the need to fudge the facts for dramatic purposes. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed, especially with a certain someone’s performance.

It’s hard to picture anyone but Chastain playing this role. She’s Molly’s doppelganger, looks, speech, and the whole nine yards. Her character development is phenomenal: obedient athlete to sly assistant to confident independent businesswoman. She’s a whole different animal by the end. These transformations felt like their own characters – Chastain played each so well so when there’s a sudden flip of a switch on to the next one, it feels invigorating and exciting. It wasn’t just her personality that altered over time, but also her fashion, essential to her character, ultimately becoming a convincing woman with all the chips. Her counterpart, Idris Elba (Luther), who plays her lawyer (another Sorkin fictional character), brought laughs to the party and had just as much of a presence as Chastain on screen. The same goes for Michael Cera (Superbad) who plays one of the high stakes players. Fun fact: Cera plays Tobey McGuire (Spider-Man), renamed “Player X” for privacy purposes, one of many Hollywood stars who joined in on the fun. Molly had quite the line up: Matt Damon (Jason Bourne), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Ben Affleck (Argo), as well as athletes Pete Sampras, and Alex Rodriguez.

Bottom line: For diehard poker sports fans and non gamblers alike, Molly’s Game is entertaining as hell – story, pace, and needless to say, killer acting all around. Sorkin played the long game as a writer, joined when the table was hot, went all in, and boom full house…officially able to call himself a director, and a good one at that! 

I, Tonya

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You don’t need to be a diehard sports fan to know who Tonya Harding is. You may not be a figure skating aficionado, but her name goes way beyond her sport. Back in the early 90s, Harding was one of the best skaters in the world, but the competition was fierce. Leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, Harding’s ex-husband hired a man to break Nancy Kerrigan’s leg, Harding’s biggest rival. This became a huge scandal on so many levels and unfolded like a bad murder mystery of who, what, where, when, how and why. I, Tonya tackles this story from the perspective of the (wo)man, the myth, the legend, Ms. Harding herself, played by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) in this quirky sports biopic that’ll make you question all you thought you knew.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers has written some of our favorite romcoms like P.S. I Love You, Stepmom and Hope Floats. Serious dramas based true stories aren’t exactly his forte, but I, Tonya further proves that going out of your comfort zone is ALWAYS a good thing. Rogers starts with Harding as a little girl, played by the rising star McKenna Grace (Gifted). There’s more to her story than meets the eye. Fact is she was abused mentally and physically by her mother and later by her husband. In the film, rather than making Harding out to be a villain, as the media continues to do, she becomes a sympathetic character. Her mother and husband see things quite differently than Harding and including all of their views makes the film that much better. 

Some might criticize Rogers and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) assuming they are mocking Harding, but in fact they are focusing on Harding's background and how it negatively influenced public opinion. The flashbacks of Harding as a little girl show she could not have known any better based on her background and this sets the tone. The editing is flawless, especially during the skating scenes. Gillespie breaks the third wall, similar as was done in The Wolf of Wall Street, having the actors stare into the camera, deep into your eyes. During these times, Robbie and her mother, played by Allison Janney (American Beauty), make you laugh out loud.

These women were outrageously good, sure to be nominated. Nailing the accents and mannerisms, as well as the costumes makes this film an absolute must-see. Again, it might appear to be making fun of Harding, but hello that’s her – the similarities are uncanny. If it’s good enough for the real Tonya, it should be good enough for you.

Bottom line: Rogers and Gillespie were the right men for the job, the result being a eccentric biopic, one with less drama than it could've been. Harding herself may not have gotten gold, but Robbie did (or let’s hope so in March)! 

Chuck

You’re probably asking yourself, who’s Chuck Wepner? Believe it or not, you know who he is. Ever heard of Rocky (1976)? Most of you probably just chuckled…duh! Well little did you know, Rocky Balboa’s story is actually inspired by Chuck Wepner’s life, the former American professional boxer who fought at the heavyweight level. When Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor, he went to the famous Muhammad Ali and Wepner fight. Intrigued by the story, Stallone went home and cranked out a script that put him on the map, Rocky. You had me at hello – I had to learn more, prime time Jeopardy material right here!

Four writers were clearly just as fascinated as Stallone: Jeff Feuerzeig (Chuck), Jerry Stahl (Bad Boys II), Michael Cristofer (Gia) and last but not least, Liev Schrieber himself (Ray Donovan), who plays Chuck Wepner in the film. This is gold – I mean who wouldn’t want to recount the story behind one of the most iconic American films in history. The writers dove right in, introducing Wepner at a lull in his life. They used his boxing career as a means to get to the meat of the story, Wepner’s true nature outside of the ring. His arrogance got the best of him, thus outside of boxing he was a disappointment to everyone that loved him. Plain and simple, Chuck was a walking cliché. It wasn't until his 2nd wife, played by Naomi Watts (King Kong), brings out another side of him that we see the good in Wepner. Fun fact: Watts also happens to be Schrieber’s ex wife in real life… RIP to their 11 year marriage. Schrieber flawlessly exemplified all of Wepner's sides and boy were there were a lot. He maintained Wepner’s arrogant façade, but somehow without saying a word showed the side the boxer always tried to hide, his insecurity. Now that’s what I call stellar acting!

The writers got by with a little help from their friend: director, Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie). He seamlessly interwove real-life footage, a dream for any diehard sports fan. Cover your eyes when blood is flying and you hear the sounds of bones breaking with every punch, but it’s also cool to see in slow motion if you can stomach it. It’s not the anticipation of what is going to happen that will have your knees bouncing up and down, but instead the soundtrack that’ll have you singing along (and maybe even want to download it after the movie). The interpretation of what this time in history looked like through the cinematography and costume design is so real, it feels like you’re with Wepner every step of the way.

Bottom line: Chuck is a KO (knock-out), and laugh out loud funny, an added plus that makes it even more worth it to head to the theaters to see this latest meaningful biopic.

 

 

 

 

Bleed For This

“You can do anything you set your mind to.” -Ben Franklin

Truer words have never been spoken – Vinny Pazienza is living proof. Paz is a former professional boxer who held world titles at lightweight, light middleweight and super middleweight levels. Someone sure ate their Wheaties over the years! In 1991, his world turned upside down when he got into a serious car accident, breaking his neck. Every doctor told him he would probably never walk and definitely never fight again. With a medical device called a Halo screwed into his skull in four places, propped up with four metal rods, this seemed obvious to most, but not to Paz. If you’re a history buff, you know the ending, but shhh don’t spoil it for the rest, which is why I’ll stop here. The acting, filming and soundtrack were all the right ingredients for an entertaining and well-executed film.

Miles Teller’s debut in Rabbit Hole, followed by an Oscar worthy performance in Whiplash, sealed the deal. He’s undoubtedly a Hollywood star. This role is unlike any of his other films; biopics require lots of hard work, determination, research, and in his case complete body transformation. It’s plain as day that Teller put in the work. He embarked on an extremely regimented diet (zero alcohol…woof), and an undying commitment to working out. To put this into perspective, he went from weighing 188 pounds with 18% body fat to weighing 168 pounds with only 6% body fat. Hot damn Teller…if only! Teller proved this role was made for him, personifying every little detail down to Paz’s accent. The casting was impeccable – the actors were identical to those they were impersonating, not an easy achievement and thus extremely impressive casting.

Writer and director, Ben Younger (Prime), didn’t have to do much as it’s a formulaic diehard sports fan film. All those that have come before have already laid the groundwork. It would be hard to mess this one up – luckily he didn’t. What was special about the film was its soundtrack. Its’ period-specific soundtrack made it not only fun and entertaining, but also more authentic with several hits from the 80s. Even more impressive, ten of the eighteen songs on the soundtrack were composed by Julia Holter, this being her first film score of her career.

Bottom Line: Because of Teller’s enduring willpower, this couldn’t have been a better way to honor a great American athlete. Paz’s true humor shines through Teller for several laugh out loud moments, shocking considering the amount of cover your eyes scenes, oh yeah prepare yourself. At first glance, it may not seem like a feel good, but when you see someone defy all the odds, it’s hard to feel anything other than shock and awe. Teller, you were a knock out in every sense of the term (pun intended). But seriously – has that regimen lasted? No alcohol, really? You can tell us, this is a safe place.  

DOC & DARRYL

Now I have to admit I did not know who Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were before this film. In my defense, I am from Miami and was never much of a Mets fan and quite frankly, not a baseball fan either. But I think it’s safe to say diehard sports fans will most likely know who they are, if anything by reputation.

For you history buffs out there, here is a mini refresher. Dwight Eugene “Doc” Gooden is an American retired professional baseball player who played in the MLB for many teams, but most notably for the New York Mets. Gooden is a four-time MLB All-Star and three-time World Series champion, but what you probably didn’t know is that he suffered from an alcohol and drug addiction throughout his career. Similarly, Darryl Strawberry is an American former Major League Baseball right fielder, also well known for his time with the Mets from 1983-1990. He was considered one of the most feared hitters in the league, with countless home runs and one hell of a career. The details of his life, behind closed doors however are a whole other story.

You may be wondering, why would director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up & Trainwreck) take on a project like this? After attending the Q&A at the premiere of the film with co-director Michael Bonfiglio (You Don’t Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson), I learned Apatow has been a lifelong Mets fan. He has always wanted to make a 30 for 30 film, which for those of you who don’t know, is a series of documentary films airing on ESPN. This one is particularly engaging and interesting because it exposes the difficulties addiction-ridden athletes suffered pre-steroid era. The film is set at a diner in Queens (fun fact: the recognizable Good Fellas diner). The tension between the two players, meeting for the first time in years, is palpable and worth seeing for that scene alone.

Bottom Line: Sports fans will love it, but even those who aren’t necessarily the biggest of fans will enjoy too. I am excited to say that my boss, David O’Connor, is the executive producer on the project… so I may or may not be biased, but seriously, I recommend seeing this film! 

Now I have to admit I did not know who Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were before this film. In my defense, I am from Miami and was never much of a Mets fan and quite frankly, not a baseball fan either. But I think it’s safe to say diehard sports fans will most likely know who they are, if anything by reputation.

For you history buffs out there, here is a mini refresher. Dwight Eugene “Doc” Gooden is an American retired professional baseball player who played in the MLB for many teams, but most notably for the New York Mets. Gooden is a four-time MLB All-Star and three-time World Series champion, but what you probably didn’t know is that he suffered from an alcohol and drug addiction throughout his career. Similarly, Darryl Strawberry is an American former Major League Baseball right fielder, also well known for his time with the Mets from 1983-1990. He was considered one of the most feared hitters in the league, with countless home runs and one hell of a career. The details of his life, behind closed doors however are a whole other story.

You may be wondering, why would director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up & Trainwreck) take on a project like this? After attending the Q&A at the premiere of the film with co-director Michael Bonfiglio (You Don’t Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson), I learned Apatow has been a lifelong Mets fan. He has always wanted to make a 30 for 30 film, which for those of you who don’t know, is a series of documentary films airing on ESPN. This one is particularly engaging and interesting because it exposes the difficulties addiction-ridden athletes suffered pre-steroid era. The film is set at a diner in Queens (fun fact: the recognizable Good Fellas diner). The tension between the two players, meeting for the first time in years, is palpable and worth seeing for that scene alone.

Bottom Line: Sports fans will love it, but even those who aren’t necessarily the biggest of fans will enjoy too. I am excited to say that my boss, David O’Connor, is the executive producer on the project… so I may or may not be biased, but seriously, I recommend seeing this film!