The Card Counter

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish at a table

In The Card Counter we meet another of Paul Schrader’s lost loners, with Oscar Isaac joining actors as varied as Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver) and Lindsay Lohan (The Canyons) as the latest in a series of souls seeking salvation, redemption, expiation in a do-or-die struggle with their own human frailty.

In familiar Schrader first-person voiceover William Tell (Isaac) explains how he learned to count cards while in prison serving an eight-year jail term for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Tell goes into some detail explaining how card counting works – high value cards score minus one, low value cards plus one, the other cards nothing at all – and how it’s useful only when playing blackjack, where it can shift the odds away from the house just enough to confer an advantage on the counter. Aware of the fact that casinos will eject anyone they believe to be counting, Tell stays beneath the radar by not drawing attention to himself – he’s a medium stakes player who politely says thanks for a good game as he leaves the table to collect his modest winnings.

All this changes when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man investigating the death of his father, also an Abu Ghraib guard, who’d come home from Iraq, got addicted to oxycodone and shot himself. And changes a bit more when Tell agrees, after a bit of hustling on her part, to go in with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a casino habitué who runs a stable of players. Off the three of them go on a journey to win big and make amends for sins committed in the past.

Schrader loves these dark, nighttime worlds but knows he’s in territory so familiar that he needs to make it clear he knows we know – hence a reference to The Cincinatti Kid early on – and there’s a lot in The Card Counter that we’ve seen before. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Tell lives a life of monastic asperity – when he checks in to the latest motel room he removes the paintings from the walls and then covers all the furniture with sheets tied on with twine. Oscar Isaac even apes some of the De Niro style early on, as does Tye Sheridan – do nothing, look intense, nod your head – so the presence of Tiffany Haddish as the warm, open, fun La Linda is a massive bonus. She’s the best thing in this film by a stretch.

Cirk and William at a table
What’s the deal? Cirk and Will



To be fair to both Isaac and Sheridan, when their characters’ personalities shift, so do their acting styles, and both men break free of the gravitational pull of old stars’ star turns decisively when Schrader starts leading them towards a showdown with Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the US Army major and “bad barrel” who made a “bad apple” of Tell and the other Abu Ghraib torturers.

Schrader doesn’t just have Bush-era politics in his sights. In the shape of Mr USA (Alexander Babara), a fellow card player who dresses in the stars and stripes and is followed by an entourage who chant “USA! USA!” whenever their champ eliminates a rival, he’s also got Trump-era America in his crosshairs. A scriptwriter’s cursory attempt to tie the two eras together.

While it’s a good film, I kept thinking, “Imagine if Martin Scorsese had directed this” all the way through (it was the Martin Scorsese Presents splash up front that did it), because no matter which way you turn him, Schrader isn’t a director’s director, or even a director’s second-unit director. But in spite of flabby do-nothing shots and regularly coming into a scene way too early, Schrader keeps the energy up and manages some neat transitions.

If it all starts to look like 1940s noir stylistically and in terms of framing the further into the journey it travels, that’s familiar Schrader territory too. And the added bit of melodrama to wrap things up neatly also suits The Card Counter very well.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Canyons

Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

22 July

 

Paul Schrader born, 1946

Today in 1946, the writer, critic and director Paul Schrader was born, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. The son of Calvinist parents, he was brought up strictly and didn’t see a film until he was 17. He studied theology, then went on to do film studies at UCLA Film School, having met the famous critic Pauline Kael by accident en route and become one of her critic protégés. His first screenplay, co-written with his brother Leonard, was The Yakuza, and became the most expensive script ever written. Next he wrote Obsession for Brian De Palma and Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese. Not a bad one, two, three. Schrader’s debut as a director came with 1978’s Blue Collar, and he followed that up with Hardcore, based on his own Calvinist background. Since Schrader’s sensational debut he has continued to write (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction) and direct (Patty Hearst, Touch, The Walker, Adam Resurrected), his films often touching cultural hot-button issues, often dealing intensely in guilt, redemption and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a bad world.

 

 

 

The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The Canyons is a work of douchebag genius, Paul Schrader’s best film since god knows when also generating publicity headlines because of the presence of Lindsay Lohan in the cast. In the fickle up and down of public taste – as gauged by the highly selective mass media – Lohan had become a pariah, a laughing stock, when the film debuted, a “train wreck”. So the film got sidelined and Lohan’s brilliant, gutting performance got ignored. And she’s playing close to home too, as the ingénue on the outer rings of Hollywood who’s hooked up with some trustafarian asshole (James Deen, of porn star fame) hoping he’ll get her some gig somewhere, anywhere.
Schrader ushers us into the action having first shown us a series of stills of abandoned movie theatres. We’re living in a post-cinema world, seems to be the idea, before Schrader embarks on a genre of movie straight from the high water mark of cinematic culture – film noir. Tara (Lohan) used to be in a relationship with Ryan (Nolan Funk), but dumped him to be with Christian (name surely ironic, played by Deen), who now suspects that she has taken up with Ryan again (because she has) and is having her tailed, him tailed, everyone involved tailed, is reading her phone messages, and so on. That’s all the plot anyone needs to know.
If no one likes a porn star trying to go straight, then Schrader has cast the dubiously talented Deen perfectly, because he’s playing a nasty piece of work, someone who’s basically a psychopath who’s been kept out of real trouble by his cushion of wealth. Total control is Christian’s game, hence the most attention grabbing sections of the film, when he routinely invites random good looking people over for sex with him and Tara.
We see it all – in close-up his cock, her swinging breasts and corned beef legs (Lohan so suddenly middle aged for one so young), and further back the drinks by the pool, the swish cars. Whether Tara is going to carry on being a hostage to her own greed, wants to be a pampered pet or her own woman is ultimately what the entire film revolves around, Bret Easton Ellis’s screenplay a-bristle with deadpanning morality.
Schrader knows his films and his film-makers and his careful choice of old Hollywood locations means there’s always a hint of Sunset Boulevard in the mix – the Billy Wilder flick about Hollywood’s dark side that had Louis B Mayer so incensed he wanted Wilder tarred, feathered and horsewhipped. And the casting of Lohan is iconic too, since she’s the direct heir of Elizabeth Taylor at her peak – wanton, mascara-streaked, uncontrollable and on her day the best actress about. This is Lohan’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and if Taylor was then playing a spitfire drunk whose marriage (on-screen and off-screen to co-star Richard Burton) was on the rocks, then this peak behind the celebrity pages at a young woman who is told by her dominating boyfriend that “no one has a private life any more” is a case of same-same.
If you don’t like sleaze, you won’t like this film’s 1980s porn vibe. But even with an Easton Ellis script it’s undoubtedly a Schrader film – full of acid energy with the possibility of redemption as its key. Once a Calvinist…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A brilliant Lohan performance
  • Hollywood’s underbelly
  • Too good for Sundance and SXSW, among many
  • A notorious movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Canyons – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

A flashback sequence from Mishima

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 November

 

 

Yukio Mishima commits seppuku, 1970

On this day in 1970, the Japanese writer/actor/director Yukio Mishima disembowelled himself ritualistically, after having tried and failed to persuade troops at the Ichigaya barracks to launch a coup d’état to reinstate the Emperor’s supreme power. Shortly afterwards, as pre-arranged, his assistant attempted to decapitate him. When this failed, another assistant succeeded in severing Mishima’s head, then performed the same service for the first assistant, who had by now also disembowelled himself. Mishima’s real name was Kimitake Hiraoka and his act brought to a conclusion a life that had been devoted to the idea of the artist as a man of action. A precocious talent as a child, Mishima had shown early promise and had been writing from the age of 12. A novelist, poet and playwright by the late 1940s, Mishima had been a celebrity since his early 20s. He also took up acting, directing, singing and modelling in the 1960s. Though essentially gay, Mishima was strongly against what he saw as the effete culture of art and took up weight training and kendo, which he continued until the end of his life. He joined the Japanese armed forces aged 42, then formed his own private militia a year later, which was devoted to the idea of the Emperor as the divine essence of Japan. He saw himself as a modern samurai and patriot, and as a template for a new form of artist. Famous throughout the world, particularly in the United States, Mishima was considered for the Nobel prize for literature three times. He lost out in 1968, it is thought, because of his radical militaristic, quasi-religious politics.

 

 

 

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, dir: Paul Schrader)

Better known as a writer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) than as a director, Paul Schrader’s work behind the camera has been wildly erratic but always interesting. See Adam Resurrected – Schrader’s screwy examination of Jewishness. Or The Walker – his quasi noir about his country’s moral malaise. Both are works dealing with difficult subjects and not entirely sure how to get onto the screen the ideas – possibly only half developed – buzzing around his head. With Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, he is on much surer ground, telling the life story of Yukio Mishima in three distinctive chunks. Chunk one shows Mishima’s formative years in black and white. Chunk two is Schrader’s version of significant moments from Mishima’s published oeuvre, all played out in a heightened realistic style in fizzingly bright colours. Chunk three is the last day of Mishima’s life, leading up to his suicide. Like other characters from other Schrader films, Mishima is the troubled hero, difficult, thrust towards a course of action most of us wouldn’t contemplate (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver) but which springs logically from his worldview. It’s a remarkable biography because it manages both to tell us about the man in a reasonably factual way, while also sketching in his psyche with poetic, expressionist touches. Schrader co-wrote it with his brother, who lived in Japan and had co-wrote Schrader’s first film, The Yakuza. The set design is by Eiko Ishioka – Dracula, M Butterfly and The Cell (terrible film, great looks) – whose colour sequences alone make the film worth watching. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” says Mishima at one point. Though in Ishioka’s production design the ageing narcissist does at least go out surrounded by beauty, a beauty that, in Schrader’s vision, is analogous to a kind of purity of thought. Whether Schrader is holding such a model of humanity up as an example for the rest of us to admire and follow is never quite clear.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the best biopics ever made
  • Like or loathe him, Mishima is a fascinating character
  • Philip Glass’s thrumming score
  • It’s another take on Travis Bickle – self-mythologist, narcissist, nutter

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – at Amazon