Tag Archives: movie

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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Tarantino or Taranti-yes? Eight ways to decide whether to see The Hateful Eight

13 Jan
the-hateful-eight1

Bounty hunters Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell, with the woman they are taking to hang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Are you thrilled to experience Ennio Morricone’s first score for a Western since 1981? The film opens with a few minutes of a static image with OVERTURE printed on it, to give the score a chance to get going (and a chance for the editor in me to tut-tut at the poor kerning – I would have reduced the space after the “O” and the “R”), and there is wonderful moment where the classic Morricone “ah-ah-aaaah” voices swell over a slow-motion shot of horses struggling through the snow, breathing heavily. But it has nothing like the resonance of his Sergio Leone scores. Though Morricone recently won the Golden Globe for best score, The Revenant and Sicario are both more deserving

Are you excited by seeing it in 70mm Panavision, on Leicester Square Odeon’s huge screen? Tarantino has revived this wonderful (and very expensive) format simply because he has the clout to do crazy expensive s*** like that. However, the entire movie takes place inside either a stagecoach or a single-roomed bar, so the effect is an almost entirely redundant marketing gimmick. Makes for nice lighting, though.

Do you enjoy Tarantino’s talk-talk? This has it in spades. The whole thing is talking, more even than any other Tarantino film, let alone any normal director’s films. You can see why Tarantino is thinking of turning The Hateful Eight into a stage production. But boy does it work. It’s peppered with terrific lines, and utterly absorbing for the whole of its length.

Do you like Tarantino’s bang-bang? It’s not until half-way through the three-hour movie that there is any serious violence. (Some jokey violence, mind you, involving Jennifer Jason Leigh being repeatedly slammed in the face by her bounty hounter, ha ha.) But the climax is every bit as blood-drenched as Reservoir Dogs.

Do you think Samuel Jackson is the coolest motherf***** on the big screen? Then you’re definitely in luck. This could just be his finest role. He carries the film. All the big speeches are his, and he speaks them with the captivating slowness, emphasis and deliberation of a master story-teller. And if anyone can tell me where to get that awesome yellow-lined coat, I’m buying.

Do you believe Tarantino can coax the coolest performances from just about anyone? Yes, the director who resurrected Travolta’s dead-duck career is on form again. Everyone in this ensemble cast is terrific, with special plaudits for Tim Roth’s hilarious and utterly against-type upper-crust British accent. There’s just one exception. Not even Tarantino can make Channing Tatum (thankfully a tiny role) look or sound like he should be in a Tarantino film.

Do you like Tarantino’s time shifts? There is a time-shift scene in The Hateful Eight, where you see a past event from a different character’s perspective. It actually adds very little, however, and feels like Tarantino’s doing it just because it’s expected of him.

Do you feel Tarantino ain’t what he used to be? Let’s face it: Tarantino probably won’t ever better Pulp Fiction. But then again, probably no one will ever better Pulp Fiction; it’s one of the most extraordinary and influential films ever made (and one I’m proud to have nabbed as a cover-interview exclusive, at Time Out, before Empire or anyone else got their hands on it). And though I had my problems with Django Unchained (which I wrote about here), he’s still one of the most interesting writer-directors working in Hollywood, and this film absolutely doesn’t disappoint.

In the final analysis, do you like the sound of a spaghetti western with the same vibe as Reservoir Dogs written as an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery? Then you’ll probably like The Hateful Eight.

Gained in translation: top 10 adaptations of foreign films

5 Jun

We’ve all heard of “lost in translation”. But what about “gained in translation”? It can happen. A good friend, Frank Wynne, is an award-winning translator of novels who often picks up errors and infelicities and corrects them along the way. I can’t always judge the quality of the original prose, but I can say his books read wonderfully.

What of film? I was asked this question by someone at www.smartling.com, who specialise in translation software. They clearly want to promote their product (so: Smartling! Smartling! Smartling!), but since I find the question intriguing, I’m happy to answer. Do please add your tuppence-worth in the Comments section.

There is a tendency to regard Hollywood adaptations of foreign films as lazy knock-offs. Whatever induced them to take Godard’s joyful New Wave game-changer A Bout de Souffle and remake it as the hollow 1980s Richard Gere vehicle Breathless? But there are honourable exceptions. Here’s my Top 10, in no particular order:

for-a-fistful-of-dollars-pictures-12A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This is the film that single-handedly invented the Spaghetti Western genre, and turned Clint Eastwood from the clean-cut, yawnsome hunk of TV’s Rawhide to an edgy counter-cultural anti-hero. It is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a fact which landed director Sergio Leone with a hefty lawsuit. But since Kurosawa himself was inspired by Westerns, notably the films of John Ford, perhaps it’s a fair cultural trade.

magseven-e1314596581742The Magnificent Seven (1960). I couldn’t claim that this is better, artistically, than Kurosawa’s masterly The Seven Samurai, on which it is based (the original script was more faithful than what the studio eventually produced). But it was a classic of its time. A remake is due in 2017.

a-the-departed-HD-WallpaperThe Departed (2006). For me, the Hong Kong original, Internal Affairs, is tighter than the Scorsese version, though it finally won him the Best Director Oscar he’d been denied for so long. But this is certainly a gripping piece of film-making, with the wonderful central premise intact: an undercover police agent is placed within a criminal gang; a gangster is placed undercover within the police force; each must uncover the other without blowing their cover. Confused much?

willis12 Monkeys (1995). Great though the French short La Jetée is, 12 Monkeys goes the Whole Gilliam, taking Hollywood’s then biggest action star (Bruce Willis) and weaving around him a nigh-on incomprehensible, genre-bending dystopian sci-fi with philosophical heft.

true-lies-arnold-schwarzenegger-jamie-lee-curtis1True Lies (1994). If you like Arnie films (and I do, I do!), this loose remake of 1991’s La Totale is a superior example of the genre. Directed and written by James Cameron, it was at the time the most expensive movie ever made. Until Titanic, of course.

Vanilla_Sky_G_01Vanilla Sky (2001). Amenábar’s original Open Your Eyes was excellent, but Vanilla Sky has direction from Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise at the peak of his powers, and even had the good grace to retain Penélope Cruz in her original role. How the BBC’s otherwise wonderful Life on Mars thought it could get away with lifting the rooftop scenes after not one but two films had used it, however, I don’t know.

InsomniaInsomnia (2002). I haven’t seen the apparently excellent Norwegian film on which this is faithfully based, but Christopher Nolan’s adaptation is certainly a goodie. It contains one of Robin Williams’ least annoying roles, and even Pacino is prevented from going over the top.

Some_like_it_hotSome Like It Hot (1959). I haven’t seen the 1951 original of this, either: Fanfaren der Liebe. But no comedy could possibly beat the chemistry of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, Marilyn Monroe at Peak Sex, and the genius of director Billy Wilder. “Nobody’s perfect”? This film is.

Let-Me-In---2010-007Let Me In (2010). There’s no question that the original modern vampire pic Let The Right One In was better. But the adaptation that followed it with indecent haste was not far off it, thanks largely to a typically precocious performance by Chloë Grace Moretz.

birdcageThe Birdcage (1996). This kind of ultra-broad farce is not really my cup of tea; and the American adaptation is even broader than the French La Cage Aux Folles. All the same, it can be a joy to see Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, as the drag queen who has to play it straight to impress their son’s potential in-laws, go way over the top. Hank Azaria as the butler is flat-out hilarious.

Do you prefer The Ring to Ringu? Clooney’s Solaris to Tarkovsky’s? Have your say in Comments, below.

LSF report #5: The Art and Craft of Dialogue

4 Nov
Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University's School of Communication

Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University’s School of Communication

One for the writers among my readers. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, I attended a seminar on The Art and Craft of Dialogue, given by Claudia Myers, professor of Film and Media Arts and writer of three produced feature films. She started off with what makes a good scene:

1. Each scene (unless it’s just crossing the road to the grocery store!) should have a beginning, middle and end, mirroring the structure of a play.

2. It should centre on conflict. And the essence of that is competing agendas – eg two dogs, one bone.

3. Start in one place and end somewhere else. If you take the scene out and the story if unchanged, you don’t need it.

4. There should be a polarity shift – like the “plus” poles and the “minus” poles. So if it starts off with things looking bad for your character, maybe it finishes by looking good. Or vice versa: you go expecting a romantic dinner, but in fact it’s been arranged to break up with you.

5. Build towards a climax, which should lead to a resolution.

Okay, now – on to what makes good dialogue within that scene:

1. It can advance the plot. If the scene is a break-up, that will be likely verbalised in some way.

2. It can reveal character. The way people say things tells a lot about who they are: their level of education, where they’re from. Maybe they’re pedantic, or use big words, or reveal someone who’s always looking on the bright side – like in Happy Go Lucky, where what she says after her bike is stolen is “Aww, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye!” Sometimes not speaking, not answering a question, can be revealing. You can express the way characters feel about each other, whether it’s contempt or admiration. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her “Mrs. Robinson”.

3. It can give exposition. There’s really only so many newspaper articles you can have conveniently lying around, or diplomas and picture of their past on the wall. Ideally a scene should give exposition and reveal character. Here’s a bad way to give exposition: “I’m so glad you’re my brother and it’s your birthday.” Better is “Happy birthday, sis”, or if they both talk about “Mom” it’s pretty obvious they’re siblings.

4. It can set the tone. It you’re writing a comedy and the dialogue is not making me laugh, that’s a problem.

So, those are the pillars of good dialogue. Now, always remember that good dialogue works subtextually. Subtext is when people don’t say exactly what they mean. We do it every day. “I’ll think about it” usually means “no”, politely. Actors love playing subtext, too. And good dialogue revolves around conflict.

So let’s say a girl wants to break up with her boyfriend. Bad dialogue is: “Tom, I want to break up.” “Okay.” A better start would be: “Tom, before you say anything, I just want to say that these have been the best six months of my life.” At the climax of a scene, usually, a character can’t hold back and is forced to say bluntly what they were trying to say politely, as a result of the pressure the scene puts them under.

We closed with an examination of some terrific scenes from Erin Brokovich and Fargo. None of the above is rocket science, but it’s a very useful check-list to have to hand, if you are writing a script. Go over every scene you’ve written, and the dialogue within that scene, and ask yourself: could it be working harder, and doing more of the things on that check-list?

The future is now. Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder

17 Sep
2001 A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey, to be re-released as part of the Days of Fear and Wonder festival

It’s sci-fi, Jim, but not as we know it. The BFI today released full details of their festival Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, and I have to say I’m impressed. Normally we in London get all the cool pop-ups, all the hot-tub/rooftop/secret cinemas, but this festival does a fine job spreading weirdness right across the land.

Want to watch sci-fi down a North Welsh mine filled with trampolines? Follow clues through the streets of Glasgow to find a screening of Escape From New York? See Mad Max 2 in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Belfast? Watch eco-dome sci-fi film Silent Running at the Eden Project? Catch a starlit drive-in show at the Herstmonceux Observatory and Science Museum in East Sussex?

There are over a thousand screenings and events in over 200 locations around the country, including three months of programming at the BFI Southbank. The search function has just been added today to the BFI website.

My mind is blown. I was a sci-fi nut as a kid, though films were pretty sparse. The queue for Planet of the Apes stretched several times round the block. Star Wars made me vow to be involved in movies when I grew up. After I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I made a point of tracking down all the B-movies name-checked in the Science Fiction Double Feature song (which, in some kind of dream/reality confusion worthy of Father Ted, Patricia Quinn sang to me and a handful of other party guests in Kim Newman’s kitchen last summer).

By now, a lot of the science-fiction I loved has become ancient history. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey (re-released in a digital transfer on Nov 28), or the comic 2000AD. We’re living more than a decade in the future from those once far-flung predictions. We may not quite yet be commuting to work on jet-packs, but we will soon be in driverless cars.

Sci-fi has emerged from the fringes to become not only the dominant blockbuster form, but its visionary cinema of ideas is being celebrated by the BFI in their biggest and most ambitious festival ever. Truly, the Geeks have inherited the Earth.

Three things screenwriters can learn from Starred Up

26 Mar

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Wow. A star is born. Jack O’Connell is absolutely extraordinary in the gritty British prison drama Starred Up. Tough and vulnerable, very physical but still intelligent, and with that infectious laugh he deployed so well in Skins that says “F**k it all, I’ve nothing to lose,” he gives a (literally) balls-out performance. Angelina Jolie cast him as the lead in her next movie after seeing an early preview. It is inconceivable that he will not become the next major British star to follow Ewan McGregor, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender.

But there’s another star born here, and that’s the first-time writer of Starred Up, Jonathan Asser. About three years ago, I met Jonathan at a film gathering, and we swapped the pitches for our current projects, as you do. When I heard his, I told him, and I have never said this before or since, that it wasn’t just a strong idea, but that it would get made. All he had to do was put it in front of some producers, and one would leap at it.

The reasons for that should be instructive to any would-be writer/film-maker.

— Write what you know. Producers are looking for inside knowledge that only you can bring. A tiny example: I went to a seminar with a British director who was hired to make a Hollywood cop movie, above more experienced American directors, because he said his Dad was a policeman.

Jonathan Asser worked as a prison therapist for 12 years, before his contract was abruptly and mysteriously terminated. When he talked about life in prison, you knew that whatever fiction he wrote was going to grounded in reality, that he knew the ins and outs that most writers-for-hire in their lonely garrets or beside their Hollywood pools could only guess at.

— Create your world. This point follows from the first, but whatever your genre, the world it’s set in must be convincingly “real”, however outlandish are the events that take place within it. This is even true in fantasy and science-fiction. The Lord of the Rings and Dune both endure because the writers created an elaborate alternate universe, with its own languages, history, races and customs.  

I remember Jonathan Asser was worried about his proposed title, Starred Up, being alienating. No, I said, it’s perfect. First, it just sounds good. But more importantly, even if you don’t understand it you can tell it’s some kind of slang (it means a young offender being transferred early to an adult prison), which conveys the message this will be a story told from the inside, with its own unique language and customs.

— Show them the passion. I once had a friendly meeting with a top producer. She listened to my ideas: a sci-fi film, a thriller, a rom-com. She said yes, fine, but what are you really passionate about? I was thrown. All of them, I said. No, she insisted, what are you really passionate about?

I think what she meant was, what’s the film you would die if you didn’t make, the film that is burning to erupt from inside you like molten lava? Starred Up is clearly that to Jonathan Asser. There’s even a line in the film when the prison therapist, modelled on himself, confesses that his group sessions are just as much therapy to him as to the inmates. “I need to be here,” he says simply. And this is a film, after his therapy project was pulled out from under him after 12 successful years, that Jonathan needed to write.

As the old Hollywood saying goes, “The most important thing in this business is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Interview and damn fine coffee with David Lynch, part one

26 Jan

With an exhibition of David Lynch’s photos now at London’s Photographers’ Gallery, and a special anniversary edition of Twin Peaks featuring additional material (possibly newly shot) planned for Blu-ray, this seems a good time to put together the best of a 1997 Time Out interview I did with the great man:

“Oh, my,” says David Lynch, as he walks into the Paris hotel suite. “Look at you all lollygagging around.”

Several things are strange about this:

1. The word “lollygagging”. Who says that? It sounds straight out of the ‘50s. That’s why Mel Brooks once described Lynch as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”.

2. Who “we all” are. Sprawled on a big hotel bed alongside me are David Lynch’s then 14-year-old son Austin, and either Adam Buxton or Joe Cornish of the “Adam and Joe” comedy duo (the second of whom would go on to make urban sci-fi comedy Attack The Block) and his film PR girlfriend, all watching Adam and Joe’s Toytrainspotting spoof.

3. It’s freakin’ David Lynch!!

His debut feature, Eraserhead, is so called because the hero gets decapitated and his head made into pencils. His only stab at a blockbuster, Dune, features a bloated, pus-boiled pervert, Baron Harkonnen, killing the terrified boy he is molesting at the moment of orgasm by pulling out the plug surgically fitted to his heart. [This is not, as I recall, in the original book]. Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear and gets much worse; Twin Peaks turns supernatural evil, serial-killing and incest into prime-time soap; in Wild At Heart Lynch cut graphic scenes of torture only after a hundred people had walked out of a test screening.

Lynch doesn’t need the torture, frankly. He is best at using the unseen and understated, a heightened banality coupled with an extraordinary use of sound, to create a terror of the unknown. His films inhabit a dreamscape where you cannot be sure what is reality and what is fantasy (never better than in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire), with backwards-talking midgets and red-curtained purgatories accessorised as standard.

We meet just before Lost Highway is released, in 1997. This is one of his most impenetrable films: not so much a “whodunnit” as a “whatthefuckwasallthatabout?”, it still gives the impression that behind the string of striking images there might just possibly be a narrative thread. I think I get pretty close to finding out what that is.

But Lynch is, frankly, a tough interview. He doesn’t like to talk about his private life, which is fair enough. But nor does he like to talk about or explain his work. What does that leave? Diet tips, maybe?

Yep, that’s exactly where we begin. Lynch once called sugar “granulated happiness”. So as Lynch pours me a cup of some Damn Fine Coffee, I ask, so, David, find any good doughnuts in Paris?

“I’m off the doughnuts,” he says; he’s 22 pounds lighter than he was. “I’m off bread and potatoes. On a diet, yeah. Of protein, vegetables, fruit, many good things. But you can’t combine it with things that trigger your insulin level to go up. When your insulin level goes up, it forms a hand, and the hand grabs the fat, and puts it in your body.” Miming this, he makes it so sinister that I haven’t eaten a doughnut since.

We move on to kids. Lynch’s daughter Jennifer wrote and directed her own film, Boxing Helena, aged just 19.  It’s about a woman whose limbs are cut off one by one by her adoring but possessive boyfriend in order to keep her by his side. Sherilyn Fenn played the lead after Kim Basinger walked off the project, for which Basinger was successfully sued for millions. Money well spent, imo. The film was so panned that Jennifer didn’t direct another for 25 years.

Jennifer was quoted as saying that even her dad found the film offensive, which takes some doing. I ask Lynch about this, and he denies it: “But it should perhaps have been a small film that found its way. The way it turned out, it just set her up for a fall.”

Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, made over a seven-year period, was about a father terrorised by a mutant baby that cries like a bleating sheep. It was directly inspired by his becoming a father to Jennifer. So… um… how did she react to that?

“Jennifer was eight when it was finished,” says Lynch, unperturbed. “She saw it. She was right there. Yeah, I think she got it…”

Read part two of the interview, in which I play a game of “hot or cold” with David Lynch to explain Lost Highway.