Tag Archives: Kevin Costner

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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Cannes confessions #3: Troma Warriors in Festival Hell!

18 May

Yesterday morning in Cannes a gang made off with a million dollars of Chopard jewellery destined for the swan-like necks of the festival’s red-carpet stars. Later the same day, a lone gunman was arrested after firing blanks at Tarantino actor Christoph Waltz. My first thought, in both cases, was “I wonder what movies these stunts have been staged to promote?”

Maybe I’ve been hanging out in Tromaville too long.

I met up with Lloyd Kaufman, the legendary cult film-maker and founder of Troma, in the Marché du Film. Over nearly four decades, Troma has made hundreds of films bearing a distinctive brand of high-octane schlock, gross-out effects  and occasional gratuitous nudity, coupled with relatively high production values and often surprisingly witty scripts. Some titles to savour: A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell; Alien Blood; Angel Negro; Attack of the Tromaggot; and, appropriately, All The Love You Cannes. And that’s just from the ‘A’s. Enjoy the full list here: http://www.troma.com/films/.

At 67, Kaufman shows no signs of slowing down. With a limited budget for marketing, he has long found inventive ways to generate heat. Hence the foundation this year of Troma’s “Occupy Cannes” movement, staging a different promotional stunt – sorry, piece of performance art – each day.

On Thursday they handed out flyers and stickers while a male streaker Tromatised the crowds on the Croisette. On Friday they attempted to stage a lesbian “wedding”, in honour of the tender love story at the heart of Kaufman’s latest oeuvre, Return to Nuke ‘Em High, but the event was shut down by the police.

Opinions vary as to why: Justin the publicist thinks it was revenge by the authorities for the streaker incident. Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran, the film’s young stars, say that it was the gay celebration that disturbed the authorities. “France has legalised gay marriage, but it doesn’t come into effect until the 26th, so they said they were in fear of riots. It’s ridiculous: yesterday we had a streaker and nothing happened, but two women displaying a public symbol of love was threatening.”

It’s refreshing, incidentally, that these girls are clearly both highly intelligent (Paredes previously wrote and directed her own short) rather than rent-a-babes. As to Kaufman, there is no doubting his drive and conviction. “You think I do this for the money? These films don’t make any money. Unless you make an underground movie for $150 million and cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one gives a fart for true art.”

He likes to smuggle social messages into the films, and behind the laughs, he is in deadly earnest. Kaufman made a promotional film for PETA called Sunny Acres Farms, in which naked humans are locked in tiny cages like chickens, injected with drugs and “humanely” slaughtered. Even Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead is, he says, about “the dangers of fast food”. The New York Times called it “about as perfect as a film predicated on the joys of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea can be”.

As Paredes puts it: “That’s the role of the jester, isn’t it? To make social commentary through humour?”

I’ll leave you with a final intriguing piece of Tromatrivia. I asked Kaufman if, like B-movie maestro Roger Corman, he had helped launch any A-list careers. “They call me the East Coast Roger Corman!” he said, before rattling off a string of names: the creators of South Park; Oliver Stone; Kevin Costner; Samuel L. Jackson; Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (aged nine in Monster in the Closet).

And you may not have heard of James Gunn, whose first film was Tromeo and Juliet, but you will. He is currently directing the mega-budget Marvel/Disney movie Guardians of the Galaxy.

More on Troma in my International Business Times feature on Cannes promotion: click here.

Click here for the next thrilling episode of Cannes confessions, in glorious Picturerama!