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.

The Card Counter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Bad Trip

Chris and Bud screaming

Bad Trip is Borat revisited. Same basic idea – pranks being foisted on real people, with a bit of scripted dramatic infill (a story) connecting the gotchas together. The pranks are all standalones, one-offs, which explains that no matter how short this sort of film is (the two Borat movies and Bad Trip all come in at a sober 90 minutes-ish), they always feel a bit too long.

But is Bad Trip funny is surely the only important question? The answer is that, yes, it is. I went into laugh-out-loud vocalising at about 15 minutes in and erupted frequently right up to the final moments.

The plot is a string of spider silk caught on a breeze and sees Chris (Eric André) and best bud Bud (Lil Rel Howery) driving from Florida to New York in pursuit of a girl (Michaela Conlin) for Chris. They do this by “borrowing” the car of Bud’s insane/angry sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), who is meant to be in jail but breaks free and heads off in an “I’m going to get those fuckers” fury, driving a police car with one door missing – she ripped it off, that’s how badass she is.

That’s it. The rest is stunts, which lean more towards the sort we saw in Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa film – private parts and bodily fluids – as well as physical maiming and bestial sex. But actually it’s plain old fashioned awkward social situations that come out on top, like when Haddish approaches a fairly ordinary looking cop and is overcome with how handsome he is. The look of bemusement on the cop’s face.

Tiffany Haddish as Trina
Trina is angry… very angry

Bearing the brunt of the Candid Camera-style stuntery is André. This is his baby and an outgrowth from his TV show, The Eric André Show, which was a prankish affair. He’s the one who accidentally puts his hand into a blender in a moment of lovelorn reverie, sending blood fluming into the air in the juice bar where he “works”. And he spearheads the more audacious and obviously choreographed pieces, like when he breaks into song in a shopping mall, and is joined by dancers as he extolls the virtues of Maria (Conlin). An onlooker merely says “the fuck” and it’s enough for the whole thing to have been worthwhile.

Lil Rel Howery is an inspired choice as sidekick/sounding board. Black guys making mischief in a public space is a recipe for god knows what sort of unpleasantness and it really helps that “Bud” is obviously a good natured soul with an unthreatening doughboy physique. Haddish works a series of variations on the same gag throughout – she’s very very angry – and Conlin only really gets a couple of chances to show that she, too, can pull off this sort of daredevil dicking around, and she can.

The dupes/marks/members of the public are a blacker crowd than you got in the Borat or Bad Grandpa films, and there are some real advantages to be had from this decision, not least black audience’s call-and-response tendency to get involved, comment, play along. Though it doesn’t always go as planned – like the scene where Haddish is threatening to drop André from the top of a building and one female onlooker down below is shouting that she should just let him drop… 

The daredevilry of the performers wouldn’t be anything without the reactions of the onlookers, in other words, who are in the main warm and honest, smart and funny, selfless and brave, as is often the case with these things. It’s well worth hanging on for the outtakes, which are full of “reveal” moments, plus a few instances where the prank didn’t go quite as well as it might have.

Humanity reaffirmed in 90 minutes-ish. Not a bad trip to be on at all.

There are five seasons of the Eric André Show on Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021