Tag Archives: James Bond

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.

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Q: What is the unlikely link between The Lobster and Spectre?

30 Oct
Lea Seydoux and Daniel Craig in Spectre

Lea Seydoux and Daniel Craig in Spectre

Yesterday, at the usually less popular 6.30pm screening in Ritzy’s huge Screen One, I couldn’t get in to see Spectre – it had completely sold out, which indicates a hit to eclipse even Skyfall. But I was glad I couldn’t, because the next available film, which I might otherwise have missed, was The Lobster, a film which couldn’t be more effectively strange, as well as strangely affecting, if it were written by Charlie Kaufman. The less said about this dystopian sci-fi parable on the nature of romance the better, to preserve your enjoyment when you see it. (You will see it, won’t you? Trust me on this.)

But great was my surprise and pleasure in the coincidence when, on finally seeing Spectre in IMAX tonight, the same actress cropped up again in a key role – Léa Seydoux. The two roles couldn’t be more different. Whereas in The Lobster she had played the chillingly cold Queen of Loners, she was Spectre’s warm, beating heart.

A couple of friends told me they couldn’t fully enjoy Spectre, as it was “emotionally unengaging”. I do agree that Daniel Craig, like some sort of celebrity version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, becomes more and more like his own Madame Tussauds waxwork with each successive outing. But Léa Seydoux (and Ben Whishaw, given a lot more to do as Q in this film) gave the film its emotional centre.

She’s not overtly sexy in the way Bond girls have classically been, but you can practically see the wisps of smoke emanating from furnaces deep inside. She’s not an action heroine, but she can handle a gun when she has to. When she’s on screen, you forget that Spectre is an inherently ridiculous (though masterfully executed) action movie, and it seems like a human drama once again.