When it comes to movies, setting can be everything.
Movies about love, conflict, redemption (and any other theme) are judged as much by where and when they’re set as on their themes. Take “Titanic,” for example. It’s a love story, but it is set against the backdrop of that well-known tragic disaster, adding to the poignancy of the romance.
“Forrest Gump” was the biggest live action film of 1994. This Tom Hanks/Robin Wright/Sally Field film utilized multiple locations to present a complicated tale of equality and acceptance. “Forrest Gump” was popularized using numerous nods to history, including some instances in which star Tom Hanks is inserted into actual photographs of the time, “Zelig” style. Along with references to Elvis Presley, there were historical references that made the movie accessible to any audience and helped emphasize Director Robert Zemeckis’ messages. (I met Robert Zemeckis in Chicago when he was publicizing the 2012 film “Flight” with Denzel Washington.)
Choosing the right backdrop and setting can make or break a film.
Poker is a setting writers use to accentuate tension. When poker is included in a film, it can leave you feeling like you have been dealt a royal flush. Worldwide, it is a popular game, with complex rules. Audiences are generally familiar with common poker terms and rules, which helps sell the film. Taking the tension of a high stakes poker game and interpreting it in writing, however, can be a difficult task. But when poker is incorporated skillfully into the plot of a film, it can enhance the viewing experience.
The iconic poker movie was “Rounders,” released in 1998. The film featured Matt Damon, Edward Norton and Gretchen Mol in a plot that IMDB.com describes this way: “A young, reformed gambler must return to playing big stakes poker to help a friend pay off loan sharks, while balancing his relationship with his girlfriend and his commitments to law school.”
That classic aside, here are three of the best, albeit, lesser-known poker films of the past 25 years:
“Finder’s Fee” (2001) dropped just before the original poker boom, which changed poker overnight.
Rather than raising the stakes, it folded quickly, which is a real shame. This Ryan Reynolds, James Earl Jones, Matthew Lillard film is overlooked among poker films. The central character finds a $6 million winning lottery ticket. The twist come when he finds himself embroiled in a backroom poker game where the stake is a simple lottery ticket. The action takes place over a single night.
Released in 2017, “Molly’s Game” is the best poker movie to hit screens in the past five
years. It features Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, the real-life organizer of illicit poker games between high profile stars.
The film is based on Molly Bloom’s book of the same name and was Aaron Sorkin’s (“The West Wing”) directorial debut.
Kevin Costner and Idris Elba also appeared in the all-star cast with characters based on real-life poker-playing personalities, such as Tobey Maguire. Michael Cera (Player X) and Jeremy Strong, Emmy-nominated this year for his role as Kendall Roy in “Succession,”also were featured in the cast. “Molly’s Game” won several awards, including Best Screenplay for Aaron Sorkin at AARP’s Movies for Grownups Awards. It is just one of many Jessica Chastain strong roles that were overlooked prior to her Oscar win last year for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” (“Take Shelter” was another, in support of Michael Shannon.)
“Lucky You” (2007) attempted to seize upon the popularity of poker during the boom. Filmed on location in Las Vegas, $58 million was invested in this story of Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), a young talented poker player who made it to the World Series of Poker while striving to move out of the shadow of his poker-playing father (Robert Duvall). The movie made only $8.4 million at the box office, opening opposite “Spider-Man 3.” Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall starred, directed by Curtis Hanson (“8 Mile,” “L.A. Confidential”) who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”). As with “Rounders,” the film has stood the test of time, although it did not find an audience at the time of its release.