RogerEbert.com — Molly’s Game

If you’re a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s particular brand of impossibly intelligent characters exchanging rat-a-tat dialogue, you’ll be in heaven here. The hose is on full blast for two-plus hours. Nothing and no one seems to be holding the longtime screenwriter back in his directorial debut, for better and for worse. But Jessica Chastain handles the complexity of the material masterfully in the true story of a woman who made millions running an underground poker game. My final review of 2017, at RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

3 Comments on “RogerEbert.com — Molly’s Game

  1.  by  Acrylic Sweater

    Re: Impossibly Intelligent Characterization

    Any time that I look at interviews about Molly’s Game, the advertisement that comes up in front of the interview with Aaron Sorkin – is the one for the ‘master class’ in script writing. I’ve listened to parts of these master classes now, and the conversation that happens in them. They’re very good, they often talk about the ‘obstacle’ that the main characters have to overcome, and how the story is about that process of getting past some difficult obstacle. It seems that this structure in script writing is a very reliable and well proven one at this point, a century after story telling using moving pictures has begun. There are certain things in script writing that many experts in that field, can now settle upon and agree on.

    However, whenever I read or listen to reviews of an Aaron Sorkin production – either in television long form, or in movie (one to two hours format) – is always the same. It’s something that all of the critics agree on. When they talk about an Aaron Sorkin experience – there is mention about suspended dis-belief. There’s the assumption that one has to submit oneself to the experience of enjoying a motion picture or a story – where the characters in it – are a lot more intelligent than any real people who live in the real world.

    And it’s not only one movie critic who has discussed the point. There are a lot.

    This actually has quite a long history. It goes back a long way, to things such as the Greek theare in 700 BC times. When people who sit on seats made out of solid rock, carved out of a mountain side. People back then, couldn’t accept the idea that a stage play would have multiple characters in it. It took centuries before people could accept the idea that one could have two characters in a stage play, instead of only one. That had it roots in things like religion, where in religion, the idea of having two people telling the same story – got you into things like Shamanism. Where the Shaman became someone else, and suddenly you were looking at two people in the center of the circle dancing around a blazing fire, instead of only one priest or elder.

    Early screen play writers had to be careful to avoid that. They had to carefully construct the play, so that all elements of the story had to remain within a single character, who was the actor. One couldn’t do multiple characters. In fact, many people will argue today, that it’s best to keep the number of characters in a story quite limited. When one distributes the story, across two great a number of characters, it makes an audience un-settled, and we get back into that same area again. Where the audience can’t accept the performance, if it has more than half a dozen main characters.

    There is one device that script writers use of course, to try and avoid that problem. It happens in all movies, where multiple characters or presence’s, are folded together, to create a lesser number of singular characters. And the criticism of the Aaron Sorkin screen play or script now, seems to be that characters become too overloaded. I.e. That criticism, that the characters start to loose credibility, because they know too much, about far too many things. The audience gets carried along to a certain extent, and one can go just a little bit too far in overloading the characters, increasing the burden which they have to carry, just a little bit too much. At that point, the artifice is broken, and instead of having half a dozen believable characters, who serve to carry the story forward – the audience unfortunately, sees straight through the artifice and the magic spell is broken.

    This is why I mention a story told in a movie like ‘Gold’. Instead of making the audience think, the characters are much more clever and intelligence than average people, and trying to hold that suspension of disbelief – we work at it from the opposite direction. In the movie ‘Gold’ we encounter a leading character who seems to be really intelligent, throughout the whole story – only to realize at the end, the same character wasn’t as smart as he thought he was all along. It’s that ‘holly shit’ moment, where one begins to doubt oneself at the most deepest and most fundamental level of one’s being. We’ve all been there, and it’s an element of real existence. Do I know anything about anything, at all? Fundamental self-doubt is part of fundamental human existence, and yet that doesn’t appear to inhabit the world that has been engineered by Aaron Sorkin.

    Is there a technique that Sorkin, in the transition to working in movies has never managed to learn? The irony that the teacher of a master class, has some fundamental flaw? I only ask the question of one of these great screen writers of our time, the same one who now appears so much in the ‘master class’. These online learning experiences are a valuable resource to aspiring talent – but the point is, it can’t only be one-way traffic, where characters continue to become more intelligent as the movie progresses – until that suspension of disbelief is ultimately broken. One pushes a good thing, a little bit too far. There has to be the counter balance to that, the relief moments, which one finds in a movie like ‘Gold’. There’s the opposite technique in good movie script writing, where you have to sacrifice one of those characters – i.e. they become far less intelligent than they first appeared to be. Sorkin, has never learned to employ that.

    I’m reminded of a true statement spoken by Peter Weller as Charles Barosky, the retired policeman in the seventh season of Sons of Anarchy. Barosky has this line that he speaks. The old and wise ex. police chief who has seen many sides of life, admits that he is half as smart as he thinks he is. There’s a level of self-awareness that is brought to bear to that character in that final season, that is somehow very satisfying and also very credible. That is woven into the fabric out of which many of the characters are created. That is the ‘Phantom Thread’, the expert seamstress doing their work so to speak.

    And one looks at many of the characters created by Kurt Sutter in that particular series over several seasons, and they all exhibit some sense of self-awareness. And when I listen to many reviews over several years now, about the Aaron Sorkin characters, is that that level of self-awareness as an integral part of the writing of the characters that Sorkin creates, is never present. It’s still a very enjoyable, talk-ey, rip-roaring ride through an Aaron Sorkin movie or television series – well worth a price of admission – at least, up until that point, where the artifice gets broken. But in terms of a real ‘master class’, maybe there deservest o be two sides of the coin. The worlds made by Sutter, where the characters are tormented by their own self-doubt, self-questioning and lack of self-assured-ness. Or a world made by a different writer, where men and women are supremely self-confident.

  2.  by  Acrylic Sweater

    Re: Cutting Edge British Dramatic Television

    It’s worth re-visiting the review of the Soderbergh movie, Logan Lucky from 2017. There’s an interesting comment made by WTF panel in that review, about characterization and the level of intelligence that an audience is allowed to see, in characters. While in the script writing or direction of Stephen Gaghan in Gold, one encounters the character who seems very bright and intelligent – but really isn’t. Steven Soderbergh works it the opposite way around – we assume that certain characters don’t have a lot of smarts – until the full story plays itself out, like in Oceans Eleven, or Logan Lucky.

    On the subject of dialogue in modern dramatic motion picture production. There is one thing about this movie and it’s reviews that I’ve read lately, that does bother me. What bothers me is that even though one has got facilities like Netflix, with which to view dramatic work from other parts of the world now – unfortunately, there still isn’t a lot of reason for an American audience and even American movie critics – to invest a lot of time in watching dramatic motion picture production from Britain or Europe. And there’s an important point to be made, in relation to that. Because, there are successful ways to use the talent resource of actors such as Idris Elba, in dramatic motion picture projects. And it’s been frequently demonstrated to good effect in British television drama. However, I think there are certain areas of motion picture production, where studios and artists in Britain are quite advanced, but even the best American talent such as Sorkin etc, still have a bit of catching up to do.

    The question is, in recent times, how have dramatic writers and directors, managed to deal with environments such as urban areas in London? And how does one take advantage of a presence of actors such as Idris Elba in that context? An actor such as Elba did gain recognition in America, playing a gangster in ‘The Wire’ HBO series. But actors like him this have been doing work in drama productions since then, here in British Isles side of the pond. I’ve even seen actors as great as Stellan Skarsgård, doing work in British dramatic television productions lately, such as in ‘River’ where he plays an odd detective. One of his lines from the movie is, why does everyone want to come to London? It’s looking at the notion of these places within the globe, that become a cross roads.

    The point from a movie direction point of view, of a dialogue and script writing point of view, is that when you have an opportunity to use great actors such as Elba or Skarsgard or many others in these British television productions – there is also this opportunity to use dialogue – but do so in a way, that superimposes a lot of different cultures, accents, appearances or styles. There are a couple of the episodes from the second season of the series in which Elba plays a part of John Luther detective, where dialogue is used in a way that becomes almost poetic. But it only achieves that, by the juxtaposition of people who seem to come from very different origins, very different backgrounds or parts of the social strata. There are some scenes, where Elba himself, Paul McGann (Withnail and I) has a very English voice, and actress Aimee-Ffion Edwards portrays an impoverished central London urban native. It’s only one example of the sort of ‘patchwork’ of diverse kinds of people that one meets inside of a British mini-drama series such as ‘River’ or ‘Luther’.

    While there is a lot of ‘dialogue’ contained in a series such as ‘River’ or ‘Luther’, there is something else that takes off some of the weight of such amount of dialogue. That is the fact, that so much of the dialogue is getting carried by folk, who sound different and deliver lines in a different way. What one didn’t see in a dramatic production such as Molly’s game however, was what you’d see in ‘Luther’, where the idea of contrast and characterization, is used to such great effect. I do take some of the points raised, that ‘The West Wing’ did contain some of the best television ever made. However, one looks at ‘The West Wing’ also, and the thing that jumps out, is how uniform the voices are. It’s only when Sorkin manages to wring some kind of contrast, some level of diversity from the characters in the West Wing, that the series reaches it’s best. Same even in ‘A Few Good Men’, where the director of ‘A Few Good Men’, I think purposefully put a comedian actor into the cast, to play against the serious character as portrayed by Tom Cruise.

    In ‘A Few Good Men’, one had that element of strong contrast – between Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak. So one had something like the levels of diversity and stark contrast that one is likely to come across in the British television productions – where one is likely to find actors like Elba or Skarsgård working nowadays. There’s one very funny scene from the second season of ‘Luther’ that I enjoyed – Aimee-Ffion Edwards has a line, where she commented that Luther is ‘not very disco, is he?’ (Bearing in mind, the young Edwards female character is using the term ‘disco’ in a 2015 context, by young folk, who’ve never seen disco in their lives) In reply, Paul McGann’s character repeats the line, ‘not very disco, is he?’ Except he does it in an upper class British accent instead of the lower class urban London one. When she says it, it sounds totally cool and street wise. When he says it, it sounds totally flat. And they manage to extract a lot of humour out of those sorts of moments. In case one forgot, one is reminded constantly throughout the story, of a diversity of characters within the story. And that is where dialogue, inserted into the voice of different kinds of people, reinforces the plot and the story in a fundamental way.

    You see it too, in the Stephen Gaghan movie ‘Gold’, where the distinctive tones of Mathew McConaughey are superimposed against Edgar Ramirez. And in the Steven Soderbergh movies like Oceans Eleven, there is humour created in several places, by the juxtaposition of dialogue delivered from different kinds of characters (like the fact that everyone in Oceans Eleven, seems to understand Mandarin dialect, is a running gag in it). Aaron Sorkin is one of the first folk, to talk about dialogue as being ‘music’. I would suggest though, that when one listens to a scene with Paul McGann, Idris Elba and Aimee-Ffion Edwards – literally because these people deliver dialogue in such interesting and different ways – that it adds a whole other layer and complexity to dialogue as music. This movie, Molly’s Game may have suffered from an inability to introduce diversity and contrast, in how the characters were set off against each other.

  3.  by  Acrylic Sweater

    Re: Variation on Theme of Characters, Intelligence, Dialogue

    A few last remaining ‘open questions’, provocations or whatever – on the subject above, form me would include one’s such as the following. It’s a broader question really, about where, why and when were the major jump’s made in different aspects of movie production – acting, writing or directing.

    Aaron Sorkin adds another dimension to the above, when he talked about his involvement as screen writer for the 2010 movie ‘The Social Network’. He makes reference to great screen writers of our time – Mamet, Sheppard, Pinter – in the sense that those writers could make interesting characters, interesting because of the inability to communicate – instead of being ‘hyper communicative’, as Sorkin did admit his characters often are. In the conversations about ‘The Social Network’, and quickly reviewing some decent blogs, news published articles and written reviews of the movie – it will reiterate what Sorkin himself described as happened to the main protagonist of the movie in ‘The Social Network’ – the journey from anti-hero to tragic hero. Aaron Sorkin makes reference to the great screen writers who had written before him, and Sorkin admits that in ‘The Social Network’, it was the first time that he experimented with an idea of characters, who had some inability to communicate. In addition, he noted that it’s unfair to make serious biographical movies about disputes between young individuals, when they’re still only college undergrads, not even aged twenty yet.

    Contrasted with that point, is the point that I would make though about British television drama. In a drama series like ‘Luther’, which in places is really all about the ‘writer’, it’s all about the dialogue, or rather the music that occurs within a conversation between two actors – in that particular episode from the second season of ‘Luther’ – what we encounter is the conversation between the wise old gentleman played by Paul McGann, and the very young female character played by Edwards. What happens there, is that Edwards is speaking in a different language, it’s barely translate-able as ‘English’ language as we would understand it. Sort of in the manner in which an Oceans Eleven character played by Qin Shaobo, who does gymnastics in the heist, and speaks in Mandarin Chinese dialect – what one finds in a conversation between McGann and Edwards – is Edwards’ character who speaks in a strange dialect, and the ‘joke’ about the conversation, is that McGann’s character who speaks in perfect Oxford English dialect – totally get’s and totally understands, what is uttered by young Ms. Edwards, which is barely legible as a language. It’s sort of a ‘street’ speak, like in a Bladerunner film or something.

    The theme though, of building a movie around the concept, that a character isn’t able to communicate very well – is not something that is restricted to screen writing alone.

    In a recent series of interviews, which Tom Hanks did about his short stories book publication – he explained that one of the first things he ever had published – was an introduction to a photographic book, about actor Garry Copper. In which, Hanks had to try and explain – that many of the contemporary leading male actors in the film industry back then – spoke out very loudly, the ‘communicated’ a lot, so to speak. And that, Garry Copper may come along in a piece of dialogue, barely utter something like ‘huh’, and it was absolutely riveting. That mere utterance, from the character that could scarcely make a sentence – yet, seemed to sum up everything in the world. There’s probably a thesis which still waits to be written about this – or even a sub-thesis, on the development of a writer such as Aaron Sorkin in terms of the different approaches or techniques that he used, over time.

    One thing that does jump out, listening to Sorkin describe his process over a very long period of time, in his writing career however, is his relationship with his actors. It’s the polar opposite in many respects, to someone such as Paul Thomas Anderson – whom Christy had nominated, as directing the second ‘best’ movie that she saw in 2017, ‘The Phantom Thread’. What you find with Paul Thomas Anderson is the ability to remain flexible, down to the last, in terms of a script – especially, where Anderson carries both role of writer and director for a project. Sorkin with agonize, over the omission of a couple of ‘M’ oral sounds, in a line of dialogue that begins with ‘Mmmmm’. Sorkin’s direction would be like, you left out some of the m’s at the end of that ‘Mmmmm’. Contrasted with a story that Anderson told, one of his actors asked if a certain twenty lines of dialogue was necessary – at a time when two characters were walking down a street, intent on committing a serious crime. Anderson insisted on the dialogue, and tried the scene without it, and preferred the later. It’s probably not understood fully, even by critics who work as professionals in movie reviews – just how large of a spectrum that exists – between the one approach, or another.

    In a sense too, it reminds one of the observation made by an actor like Christopher Plummer, who learned under a Shakespeare type acting apprenticeship. One says, the dialogue or lines that one sees on a page. Very, very interesting to listen to someone like Liev Schreiber, from a more recent generation, who approaches acting in a similar way to Christopher Plummer. However, what Plummer is able to explain well, owing to his number of decades in his career – is where and when ‘method’ acting started to emerge – with the generation of which De Niro etc were a part of. What I don’t understand however, and maybe the professionals such as Lemire, Duralde etc might be able to explain at some time – is whether the revolution in method acting – happened in parallel and at the same time, as one in direction, or in writing? I.e. Is the methodology of a writer/director such as Paul Thomas Anderson, analogous to the acting methods of the generation mentioned? I don’t know.

    All that we do know, is that which directors such as Spielberg and many of that age group can talk about – when the studio industry system of movies (where ‘distribution’ network of cinema houses across a country owned a studio in Los Angeles), was fragmenting and breaking apart – it offered a window in which Spielberg, or Lucas, De Palma were able to take control for a period of time, over their own projects. They had more creative license to play around with, for that brief period. I’m not sure that the history of these different evolution’s, or revolutions in acting, in writing or in directing, has ever been properly analyzed by a critic or an academic of movie production science and study.

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