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Schultz reviews: 'Curtiz' and 'Molly's Game'

Schultz reviews: 'Curtiz' and 'Molly's Game'

Carl Schultz

Daily American correspondent

 

“Curtiz”   Distributed by Juno Pictures, 98 Minutes, Rated TV-MA, Released April 05, 2019, now streaming on Netflix:

 

Film buffs might have more of an interest in watching “Curtiz” than other viewers...but also ironically might have more problems with the picture than anyone else.  A 2018 Hungarian production now streaming on Netflix, “Curtiz” purports to chronicle the turbulent production history of the motion picture classic and perpetual audience favorite, 1942’s “Casablanca,” and provide a character study of its legendary director, Michael Curtiz.

 

Set during the early days of the United States’ entry into World War II, in “Curtiz” the filmmaker is already directing the movie which will become “Casablanca” (the picture was based on an unproduced play titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” and while in production the picture briefly shared that title).  But because of the United States’ entry into the war, Curtiz’ production has become a focal point of interest for not only its studio, which needs a hit, but also for the US Government, which demands from Warner Bros. Pictures a quick propaganda tool to inspire a nation still accustomed to neutrality.

 

At the helm of the picture and in the eye of the storm is the despotic, sadistic, profane, abusive, predatory Curtiz, who’s guided by his own complicated agenda:  The Hungarian-Jewish director still has close family members living in Nazi-occupied Europe, and is reluctant to anger the German government with a blatantly patriotic work of Allied propanda...despite the pleas of his long-estranged adult daughter, who’s travelled all the way to Hollywood to ask for his help, and possibly reconcile with her absentee father.

 

Despite an impressive performance by Hungarian actor Ferenc Lengyel in the title role as the fabled director, the biggest problem with “Curtiz” is that the picture is about 60% inaccurate to the facts.  It’s true that the filming of “Casablanca” was an unusually haphazard affair, begun without a completed script and assembled on a day-to-day basis with new lines of dialogue being filmed almost as soon as they were written.  It’s a myth, however, that the picture had so many guiding hands behind its production: Curtiz and producer Hal Wallis were making the creative decisions all the way, with absolutely no interference from the US government.

 

That the picture deliberately sought to change the course of history, as “Curtiz” claims (“This picture is gonna win the war,” crows the government agent), is speculative nonsense--during the time of the picture’s production, “Casablanca” was just another project on the Warner Bros. assembly line, no different in quality among Humphrey Bogart films than “Across the Pacific,” which preceded it, and “Action in the North Atlantic,” which began production literally the day after principal filming on “Casablanca” ended.  During pre-production, the film’s co-writer, Julius Epstein, famously referred to the picture’s plot as “a lot of (expletive) like ‘Algiers.’”

 

The picture also tries to insert into its narrative a few modern phrases with its misleading notions, presumably as a way to attempt to suggest either satire or a precursor to future events.  At one point, Curtiz is seen complaining to producer Walls about the casting of the “puppy-dog-faced alcoholic” Bogart in the production’s lead, and asks “What happened to (then-actor and future-US president Ronald) Reagan?”  Wallis replies that the young Reagan has enlisted in the armed forces “to make America great again.” Ronald Reagan was in fact never a serious contender for the “Casablanca” role, and served nearly the entirety of his World War II military career in Hollywood appearing in training films and propaganda shorts for the military.

 

While it’s interesting to see impersonators and lookalikes imitate such classic actors as Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and perform improvised versions of iconic scenes (Christopher Krieg as a fiery Conrad Veidt and the placid Jozsef Gyabronka as character actor and Curtiz crony S.Z. Sakall are especially effective), the picture itself somehow manages to steal all the fun from the proceedings.  And as inspiring as “Casablanca” was--and is--it’s endured so long among the world’s all-time favorite movies because it’s also a lot of fun to watch, filled with zingers in the dialogue that barely made it past the censors.

 

Bitter and caustic for most of its 98-minute running time, “Curtiz” during its final ten minutes actually tries to pull its biggest punch and give the picture precisely what it attempts to rob from “Casablanca”--a happy ending.  But by that time it’s too late. This is definitely one time the viewer should instead return to the source material and take another look at “Casablanca.” Whether you’re seeing the picture for the first or the zillion-and-first time, 1942’s “Casablanca” is as good as it gets.  “Curtiz” is not.

 

The dialogue in “Curtiz” is spoken in about equal measures in English and Hungarian, and is subtitled throughout.  Co-written and directed by Hungarian filmmaker Tamas Yvan Topolanscky and actually debuting as the winner of the Grand Prix des Ameriques prize at the 2018 Montreal Film Festival (but billed as a Netflix original), “Curtiz” is rated TV-MA but is R in nature, with adult language, some violence, sexual activity, and non-stop tobacco use. 

“Molly’s Game”   Distributed by STX Films, 140 Minutes, Rated R, Released December 25, 2017, Streaming now on Netflix:

 

For quite a while now, Jessica Chastain has been among the most respected character actresses of her generation.

 

First nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in the popular 2011 picture “The Help,” Chastain is probably best known to date for her performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s fact-based 2012 thriller “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which she played Maya, the rookie CIA agent whose obsessive research leads to the location of September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

  

The rare A-List actor who’ll accept roles both large and small, since “Zero Dark Thirty” Chastain has contributed nearly-flawless characterizations in either leading roles or supporting parts to such critically-acclaimed pictures as “Interstellar,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “Miss Sloane,” and “The Martian.”  In between, the actress also finds time to appear occasionally on Broadway or London’s West End stage, and in atmospheric horror pictures such as “Mama,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” and the second part of the hit movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “It!” in 2019.

 

A teaming of Jessica Chastain and writer Aaron Sorkin is genuinely a match made in movie heaven.  Sorkin, of course, is the Golden Globe, Writers Guild, Emmy, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, producer, and playwright behind such prestigious projects as “A Few Good Men” on both stage and film, television’s iconic series “The West Wing,” and the recent Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird, among many, many other top shelf projects.  From a perspective of excellence alone, Aaron Sorkin and Jessica Chastain are practically made for each other.  

 

In fact, one of the major criticisms of Chastain’s 2016 picture “Miss Sloane” was that Jonathan Perara, the movie’s writer, while obviously sufficiently inspired by Sorkin to attempt to emulate his writing style, could match neither his distinctive cadences nor his genius for authentic and realistic dialogue.  That Sorkin both adapted the 2017 movie “Molly’s Game” into a screenplay and chose the movie, as well as Chastain, for his motion picture directorial debut is something like a blue-ribbon stamp of quality on the entire production.

 

Based on entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and author Molly Bloom’s 2014 memoir “Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World!” (the title itself reveals much of the plot of both the book and the movie) Chastain in the movie plays the real-life Molly Bloom.

  

Raised by an obsessive, driven father for a life of athletic and scholastic overachievement (in real life, Molly’s younger brother Jeremy Bloom is a member of the Skiing Hall of Fame, a 2008 Olympian, and a former kick-return specialist for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers), when a horrifying skiing accident brings an abrupt end to Molly’s dream of Olympic glory, she turns to other pursuits.  And her quest for independence from her domineering and controlling father leads eventually to the clandestine world of gambling--specifically, floating high stakes poker gaming.

 

Jessica Chastain has been noted in the past for her eclectic choices in movie roles, often selecting pictures which emphasize the empowerment of women.  In “Molly’s World”—and in Aaron Sorkin’s world—Chastain is plainly in her element. Sorkin’s signature rat-a-tat dialogue suits the actress perfectly. Despite the crackling rhythms of Sorkin’s writing, Chastain’s casually distinct phrasing renders each word clearly understandable for maximum impact, and her considerable abilities as an actress drive home each nuance and emotional subtlety.

 

Matching Chastain’s megawatt performance volt-by-volt in “Molly’s Game” is British actor Idris Elba, using American cadences as the high-powered New York super-attorney who agrees to represent Molly--albeit with enormous reservations--when she’s arrested and prosecuted by the US government for her game’s accidental and inadvertent links with the Russian Mafia.  The talented Elba might be even more suited than Chastain to Sorkin’s double-time writing style, and his performance is therefore that much more distinctive.

  

During the scene in which Chastain and Elba appear side-by-side for Molly’s arraignment before the US Federal Judge (played by the wonderfully restrained Graham Greene), Elba’s silences are as effective as his spoken lines of dialogue.  The viewer can hardly wait for the actor’s next word…but is simultaneously afraid to discover what it’ll be. Elba’s conflicted eyes in the scene mirror his cunning and reflect his unpredictability—you can see the wheels turning in his mind, calculating the odds as quickly and precisely as any gambler.  And that’s great screen acting.

 

The supporting players in “Molly’s Game” are almost as effective as the leads:  Chris O’Dowd shows up about halfway through the picture as a hapless loser who can’t decide whether he’s more addicted to liquor or gambling.  And called “Player X” in the movie to disguise the identity of the real-life person he plays, Michael Cera effectively adds a manipulative color as a megawatt Hollywood star attracted to Molly’s game not by his almost-unnatural abilities as a gambler so much as his compulsive desire to ruin the lives of other players (psst—the role is based on former “Spider-Man” actor Tobey Maguire).

 

In scenes bookending the picture’s main narrative, veteran star Kevin Costner plays against type as Molly’s obsessive and demanding psychologist father.  Costner’s departure from the boyish and heroic screen persona he established three decades ago in pictures such as “Dances with Wolves” and “The Untouchables” feels almost like blasphemy, a violation of the audience’s faith, making his scenes here that much more effective and startling. 

 

Aaron Sorkin in his debut as a director mostly plays it safe, sticking to his strengths.  But while his talents are formidable indeed, fans of Sorkin’s work as a writer are accustomed to something more:  A heaping helping of social relevance. And that’s the only real disappointment of “Molly’s Game”: After building a reputation as a sort of guardian angel of the county’s moral responsibilities, Sorkin’s many fans might find the subject matter of the picture a little...well, trivial.

 

While Kevin Costner pops up again late in the picture to summarize the events of the story and analyze them from a psychologist’s perspective as a means of adding at least some ethical gravity, it’s mostly stuff you figured out already, and nothing which changes the morally superficial tone of Sorkin’s movie.  More forcefully, it’s part of a conclusion which feels hasty, tacked-on, and even a little too predictable and sentimental, especially considering the talents involved. But at 140 minutes, the movie has to end sometime, no matter how much we’re enjoying it, and Costner’s scene is an effective wrapup.

 

From that perspective, in the end “Molly’s Game” is just that—a game.  While the picture is intelligent and vastly entertaining and contains richly entertaining performances from superb actors reading Aaron Sorkin’s customarily compelling dialogue, the viewer ultimately gets the feeling that “Molly’s Game” is more of a practice round, a warmup for some future main event.  Most of us can hardly wait for the rematch.

 

Nominated in 2018 for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Sorkin didn’t win), “Molly’s Game” is rated R for adult language, drug content, and some strong violence.  The movie is currently streaming on Netflix. To experience premium Aaron Sorkin writing, all seven seasons of television’s legendary “The West Wing” are also available for viewing on the streaming service.

 

 

 

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