Archive | April, 2014

Victoria Coren’s historic double EPT win, and why gender still matters in poker

21 Apr

 

Victoria Coren

Victoria Coren Mitchell, with the hand that won her second EPT

So Vicky Coren (or rather Victoria Coren Mitchell, as she now is), won the European Poker Tour last night, taking home nearly £400,000. Absolutely bloody brilliant. In 2006 Coren became the first woman to win the EPT. Now she’s made history on gender-neutral terms as the first person ever to win it twice.

Gender shouldn’t matter in poker, but it still does. Play any tournament, and you’ll see an average of one woman for every table of 10. Go to a cash game in a casino outside Vegas, and you may find fewer still.

Why? Coren herself describes in her excellent memoir For Richer, For Poorer the initial fear at stepping into the all-male preserve of the Victoria Casino: “My second trip is by myself… I peep through the partition wall. There, just visible through the volcanic cloud of smoke, is the same cliquey gaggle of old men. A couple of them peer suspiciously at me. My stomach clenches with fear. I go back down the stairs, find my car, and go home.”

The smoke may have lifted, and the old men have mostly been replaced by young bucks in T-shirts and shades, but poker rooms can still be an intimidating environment for women. They are assumed to be conservative players, so more aggressive players will often re-raise them with marginal hands in the expectation of forcing a fold. The more attractive female players will get hit on mercilessly, and it’s not uncommon to hear jokes about “nice pairs” and “straddling” as soon as they step away from the table. Poker tournaments and the lesser websites (not PokerStars or Full Tilt, thankfully) are still often shamelessly promoted with bikini-clad dolly birds, as though we hadn’t left the ‘70s.

More insidiously, I have had several negative conversations about Vicky Coren at the poker table. It starts when they ask me how I got into poker. “I was taken to a home game by fellow journo Jon Ronson about ten years ago,” I explain. “I’d never played Texas Hold ‘Em, and was totally out of my depth. But as our host dispensed tips on how I should have played the hand, I realised how fascinating the game really was, how much I had to learn. The host was Vicky Coren.”

Three times this story has been met with derisory comments about Vicky’s skill, the implication being that she’s only famous because she’s a woman. This is strange, because Coren is a very good player. I’ve played against her a few times now, the last time in a media tournament at the Hippodrome Casino, with Vicky on my left and her fellow British PokerStars Pro Liz Boeree on my right. She can bluff when she has to, her reads are good, she is self-critical, and, as she said when I interviewed her for the second time last year, “As to my strategy, the old rules still apply: play aggressively at a passive table and patiently at an aggressive table.”

She is also unfailingly charming to everyone at the table. So why diss her? Everyday sexism is the only answer I can come up with.

So to all the unreconstructed Neanderthals out there, I hope Victoria Coren’s historic EPT double win sends a message: you don’t need to have a penis to play poker; but it can stop you being a dick.

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A world record for 50 Kisses — watch the best shorts online

5 Apr

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Some Guinness World Records are admirable: the fastest marathon on crutches (5 hrs 29 mins, by a one-legged man); or the most marathons run in a year (157 – by a 68-year-old). Some are just plain silly: the longest fingernail (10 feet 2 inches!) or the most bees covering a human body (331,000, which must have taken a while to count).

Which camp does 50 Kisses fall into? The film, which I first wrote about here, has just been inducted into the Guinness Book of Records for the most screenwriters (51 of them) on a single movie – a record previously held by 1948’s Forever And A Day, with 21. Usually a superabundance of screenwriters on a Hollywood film signals desperation. But in this case, it’s integral to the project: get 50 short scripts by different writers, allow directors and producers to film the script of their choice, and stitch the best of the bunch into a feature-length whole.

The result is a triumph. I watched it for a second time yesterday, when overall director Chris Jones celebrated with a special screening at BAFTA for all the writers, and it actually improves with a second viewing. The quick succession of twists and terrific ideas, swinging from comedy to tragedy and back, is almost overwhelming first time round.

I recently spent three days at a Hollywood film festival watching back-to-back shorts, and 50 Kisses gives a similar experience. So, in the spirit of festivals, here are my own awards for the best shorts in 50 Kisses. Aspiring writers and directors can learn an enormous amount from comparing the screenplays to the finished films – click on the links below to read and watch them:

SmasherooBest film: Smasheroo, directed by Kerry and Evan Marlowe. A terrific script by James Howard, in which a husband stands by his brain-damaged wife, even when she calls him by their dog’s name, is made cinematic by scenes of broken windshield glass flying through blackness; the lines on a road are echoed by a Wartenberg pinwheel rolled along skin.  Performances are understated; the situation is never milked for pathos, and it’s all the more affecting for that. Script here, watch here.

50 Neil Story DigitalBest script: Neil, written by Nigel Karikari. How can you test whether your android is fully lifelike? With a kiss… The script was so good that it attracted eight different filmed versions, two of which, confusingly, are included in 50 Kisses. The version directed by Simon Reglar excels through pitch-perfect performances. Script here, watch here.

50 PracticeBest directing: Practice Makes Perfect, directed by Vance Malone. A young boy tests out kissing before his first big date – but will he have the courage to put his practising into practice? Vance wins my vote because, if you compare the finished film to Mark Pallis’s original script, you will see a number of directorial decisions that have enormously improved the finished result: putting the many flashbacks of the boy’s kissing experiments back in sequential order; removing the slapstick humour and having the confidence to be simply sweet and touching; cutting the only two lines of dialogue; and giving the girl the climactic initiative rather than the boy. Script here, watch here.

50 Neil RaoBest editing: Neil again, this time as directed and edited by Anil Rao. While this version doesn’t work as harmoniously for me as Simon Reglar’s version above, it’s the one that bears the clearest authorial stamp and vision. It’s beautifully art-directed and collage-edited. As Rao himself says, “[It was] the opportunity to relish my film theory of image montage as haiku. A non-linear experience exposes us to discover and seek truth as a memorial jigsaw.” Watch here.

50 The MomentBest actor: Stuart Martin. In The Moment, a hitman runs into a hitch – he may fancy the man he’s pointing the gun at. It’s a tall order, to play a guy so twinkly, so confident in his own charisma, that he can stop a bullet with a smile; Stuart Martin delivers. Script here, watch here.

50 FirstLastBest actress: Keziah Gardom in First/Last. In a future in which a deadly disease is transmitted through saliva, kissing is literally a matter of life and death. Shot on zero budget by Manchester students, this is elevated by Gardom’s touchingly vulnerable performance in an emotionally demanding role – all the more remarkable for it being her sole screen credit to date. Script here, watch here.

Chris Jones’s own 50 Kisses awards are here. To get news of his next crowd-created film, follow www.Create50.com

After A Separation, the divorce: Asghar Farhadi’s sort-of-sequel, The Past

3 Apr

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I’ve just seen my first great movie of the year*. It’s not flashy. It’s not ground-breaking. But it is very, very well observed, richly acted (including a terrific performance from a young boy, always hard to achieve), and just absolutely bloody brilliantly written.

The film is The Past, and it’s the first that Asghar Farhadi has shot outside of Iran. Farhadi is one of the rare Iranian film-makers who have managed to make films of artistic worth without falling foul of the authorities. “The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather,” Farhadi said philosophically after A Separation won best film at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, on the way to winning the 2012 best foreign film Oscar. “One day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”

Friends of Farhadi’s, however, have failed to pack their umbrellas. Jafar Panahi was imprisoned and banned from making films for 20 years, though he defiantly smuggled out a semi-documentary on his incarceration, teasingly entitled This Is Not A Film, on a USB stick hidden in a cake.

Farhadi originally expressed solidarity with his colleague. When the regime then withdrew permission to film A Separation in 2010, he apologised in order to get the film back on track.  As Time magazine noted when it named Farhadi one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Farhadi’s success at home could seem an act of “craven collaboration”. But, it went on, “exile or imprisonment is not a filmmaker’s only badge of honour. Another is speaking prickly truth in pictures, for all the world to see.”

Anyone hoping that filming in Paris would liberate Farhadi to speak his mind about the regime will be disappointed by The Past. Lovers of cinema  will not. In the loosest possible sense, it’s a sequel to his Oscar-winner, in that it deals with the aftermath of a separation. An Iranian man returns to Paris five years on to sign the divorce papers so that his ex-wife (played by Bérénice Bejo from The Artist) can be with the new man in her life. But has she really let go of the old?

What starts as an acutely observed relationship drama becomes almost like a thriller in the second half, piling on revelation after revelation concerning an attempted suicide, twisting round tighter and tighter like a tourniquet over a wound…

To reveal too much would spoil your enjoyment. I loved it. Go.

* I would include 12 Years A Slave, but I saw that last year.