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









Tommaso

Tommaso and his wife Nikki

Tommaso is a film by Abel Ferrara that’s essentially a film about Abel Ferrara, with Willem Dafoe in the lead role as an avatar of the writer/director, a creative dude trying to live out his golden years in Italy but finding old demons constantly resurfacing. It’s an uncomfortable and not entirely gripping drama, though Dafoe’s amazing performance does almost get it over the line.

We first meet the talented, accomplished and open Tommaso at a language school learning Italian, making the effort because he has a much younger wife at home (Ferrara’s own wife, Cristina Chiriac) and an infant daughter (Ferrara’s own daughter, Anna). He’s a film-maker, still working, and because of a successful streak he is now able to do things his way. He can enjoy life. Or he would if he wasn’t plagued by doubts, fears and a paralysing paranoia. And what does the much older husband of a hot wife fear?

Exactly. While out in the park with his daughter, Tommaso thinks he spots Nikki (Chiriac) in a clinch with exactly the sort of hot young dude you’d expect her to be hanging around with, rather than someone 30-plus years older than her. Tommaso has given up the drugs and the booze and is in good shape, but no amount of daily yoga in his apartment can bridge that gap.

To be fair to Ferrara, if this is an auto-biographical movie – and it looks like one – he’s unsparingly hard on himself, and he has absolutely no need to do that. He directed such crowd pleasers as Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York after all. After spotting the woman who might be his wife nuzzling up to AN Other, Tommaso is thrown into something between a funk and a fugue, adding to his general state of roiling self-doubt, which manifests itself as an extreme neediness and a relentless urge to hit on every woman he meets.

Working with just one rangey, dynamic camera, as he did so remarkably in Welcome to New York (which I’d recommend over this any day of the week) Ferrara shifts the film from realism to fantasy to nightmare. At night Tommaso dreams of being taken out and given a grilling in handcuffs, at one point later on he reaches under his shirt and pulls out his heart to show to some other guys sitting around a camp fire – look, the artist’s burden. Even later still, possibly as a semi-jokey reference to Dafoe’s time with Scorsese playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Ferrara crucifies his main character, Dafoe suddenly bending down to look right into the camera in a “geddit?” sort of way.

Tommaso sits apart from other people
A man apart: Tommaso


Byronesque romanticism and arthouse humour in a film that’s a nightmare sundae, with all the various sprinkles and cream, chocolate and fruit replaced by phantoms and obsessions, delusions and misapprehensions, and whether you buy the whole self-centredness of the result – I did not – there’s something unique about it, and something absolutely brilliant about Dafoe, who swings between absolute naturalism and extreme mannerism, sometimes in the same scene. I’ve seen this described in one review as “winging it”. I’ll buy “winging it” too. Nothing can be quite pinned down in this movie.

Ferrara and Dafoe made that Pasolini film together in 2014 – Ferrara has lived in Italy since the 9/11 attacks – but here the dreaminess and otherworldliness of Antonioni also seems to be in the mix, alongside Ferrara’s usual hallucinatory, nightmarish confessions.

The suggestion that only half of what we are seeing might be real is bolstered by the simple echoey piano score (by Joe Delia, a regular Ferrara collaborator) and the regular displays of nudity also remove the film from the daily run of realistic drama. Tommaso is not your usual biopic about an artist, in other words. Ultimately, for all the misgivings, that’s a good thing.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Motherless Brooklyn

Lionel aka Brooklyn in a stakeout


Motherless Brooklyn is the first film Ed Norton has directed since 2000’s Keeping the Faith. Oddly, considering Norton is a child of Episcopalians, that also had a connection to Catholicism – a rabbi and a priest fall for the same woman, boom boom. Here the link is the Catholic orphanage where Norton’s Lionel Essrog and his buds grew up, before being rescued by a kindly benefactor (Bruce Willis), who put them all to work in his detective agency.

“Brooklyn” is what Frank (Willis) calls the motherless Lionel but let’s not worry too much about Frank since he dies in the first few minutes, providing the kicking-off point for a whodunit set on mean streets, where guys in hats call each other “mook” and big old Plymouths belly around New York city corners.

Frank is a homage to Bogie and all those guys with their coat collars turned up. And so, it turns out, is Brooklyn, once he gets into the private-eye groove, though a Tourette’s tic marks him out as an unlikely kind of hard-boiled detective. His fellow orphans, now co-workers, are played by Bobby Cannavale, Dallas Roberts and Ethan Suplee and, like Willis, don’t impinge on the plot and action in any real way.

The plot is familiar too. Chinatown, basically, but instead of a to-do about water provision for Los Angeles, the corruption focuses on the redevelopment of New York, where extensive graft and kickbacks oil the wheels of progress epitomised by the figure of city planner Moses Randoph (Alec Baldwin), a character clearly modelled on legendary city planner Robert Moses.

Jonathan Lethem’s original book was published in 1999 and Norton bought the rights back then too. His adaptation (he not only directed and stars but also did the screenplay and is a producer) shunts the action back four decades to the 1950s, allowing him go the full noir – wiseguy voiceover, a Miles Davis-y soundtrack, Raymond Chandler-esque plot diversions, lush cinematography (by Dick Pope) and a femme fatale in the shape of Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

If it’s all a bit “ish”, “esque” and “in the style of”, and there’s a lot of entertainment to be had from genre tick-boxing. The bridges teem with traffic, the streets are full of brownstones decades away from gentrification and Pennsylvania Station turns up at one point as a location because that’s what happens in movies like this.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw with Ed Norton
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Ed Norton



The Moses Randolph character gets his own subplot – there’s even Cherry Jones playing an anti-Randolph campaigner, an avatar for urban activist Jane Jacobs – but Norton struggles to integrate him with the rest of the film, one grandstanding “so I ripped down a few neighbourhoods but that’s progress” speech notwithstanding.

Robert Moses is so big a figure historically – New York’s bridges and parks are his legacy, he palled about with Donald Trump’s dad, was accused of confusing “slum clearance” with “negro clearance”, as someone in hte film says about Moses Randolph – that he’s an awkward fit in a film that would actually be fine without him. He’s also a more complicated character than there is really time to develop, and Alec Baldwin is caught on the horns of a dilemma about whether to go for caricature or nuance.

Willem Dafoe turns up too, as a kind of urban soothsayer, and is as brilliant as you like in the sort of ranting, intense role that might have been written with a “can we get Willem Dafoe in to do this?” scribbled in the margin. Norton also gets a moment, in scenes with Dafoe, to remind us of those years when he was talked about in terms of being the latest in the Marlon Brando-Robert De Niro-Sean Penn line, though what with all the Tourette’s tics (done brilliantly) he’s closer to Dustin Hoffman.

A bit more poetry in the camera and a ruthless removal of 15 minutes of material by going through every scene and trimming the fat would do this film a world of good. Let’s face it, you need to be at fighting weight to go head to head with the likes of Chinatown or The Big Sleep.




Motherless Brooklyn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Siberia

Clint and an Inuit man out in the snow


Abel Ferrara’s 2019 film Siberia wasn’t shot in Siberia, unlike the 2018 film of the same name starring Keanu Reeves, which was. Ferrara now lives in Rome and so, needing snowy wastes to tell a story about a remote bar-owner’s journey into his own psyche, he starts and ends his film in the Italian Tyrol, where the white drifts of winter snow pass muster.

The film is based on Carl Jung’s Red Book, which was a full-blown surrender to his own unconscious mind in the wake of his split with fellow psychoanlyst Sigmund Freud. Though he worked by day, gave lectures and saw patients, by night Jung just let it all go, letting dreams and his imagination build themselves into powerful hallucinations. And then he wrote it all down, first in his Black Books, which were later distilled into his Red Book.

Willem Dafoe is the Jung avatar, now impishly renamed Clint by Ferrara and co-writer (and former therapist) Christ Zois, who start off the film in Clint’s remote bar/grocery/trading post, where a passing Inuit trapper is the likely only customer. Until one day an old baboushka and a pretty young woman (Ferrara’s wife, Cristina Chiriac) arrive and are greeted with the customary hot cup of instant coffee… and a vodka.

The young woman parts her coat to reveal she is naked beneath, is heavily pregnant with breasts swollen with milk. What do you do when someone does that in your bar? You fall to your knees, of course, as Clint does, rubbing his stubbly face over her tight stomach, his hands wandering up towards her nipples, while the baboushka burbles and quaffs another vodka.

WTF, obviously. This is just a taste of things to come. Before long Clint has harnessed the dog team, jumped on the sled and is haring off over white, white expanses, fabulously filmed by a drone in the sort of shot that inspires awe, at the landscape and the technology (again).

Whether the baboushka and pregnant woman are real or not is the sort of question quickly abandoned. Within minutes, in a dark cave where he has paused for the night, Clint has been assailed by images of men being executed by Nazis, a naked midget in a wheelchair and visions of his father (also played by Dafoe), before really taking off for other realms.

Clint dreams of sex with a woman
It’s not all nightmarish…



Suddenly he’s in a Berber desert encampment (still with the dogs in tow, amusingly). He’s in an operating theatre. He’s talking to a “practitioner of the black arts” (Simon McBurney) who tells him he is still relying far too much on reason. Another barrier is breached and suddenly Clint is meeting his estranged wife and son (played by Ferrara’s daughter, Anna), he’s having sex with one woman, then another, then another, and then he’s miming along and dancing (badly) to Del Shannon’s hit Runaway, which, obviously, is exactly what his mind has gone and done.

Lovers of plot, forget it, this is your one-damn-thing-after-another film par excellence. As well as Jung, totem of a billion boomer acid trips, it’s a homage to the trashy, nudity-filled Euro arthouse offerings of the late 1960s when, not to read too much into this psychologically, Ferrara came of age.

It’s probably best enjoyed under the influence of psychedelic drugs, though there’s a light touch to it as well, and an eye for mid-century modern furnishings. As for Clint being out in subzero conditions on a dog sled without any gloves, that could just be an oversight by someone in the wardrobe department or continuity or another example of Ferrara’s cock-eyed humour at work.

Connoisseurs of the many joint ventures of Dafoe and Ferrara going all the way back to 1998’s New Rose Hotel would do best to bracket this with Tommasso, a nightmarish relationship-breakdown drama possibly modelled on Ferrara’s own life as an American director in Italy, and Pasolini, in which Dafoe played the murdered Italian director. The artist as “the antenna of the race” is the common theme, to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase.

It is all sumptuously realised. Experimental it may well be in terms of its storytelling (there is none), but it’s a beautifully made film full of lush visuals and vistas on which to feast the eye, hallucinating or otherwise. Referring to his Red Book towards the end of his life, Jung observed that ”to the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” Or, as I put it at the end of my notes having watched (and enjoyed) Siberia – “Aye Aye Aye. No fucking idea.”



Think Like a Shrink, writer Christ Zois’s handbook on fixing your psyche – Buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Hunter

Willem Dafoe takes aim in The Hunter

 

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

 

 

 

9 July

 

 

 

Queen Victoria creates Australia, 1900

On this day in 1900, the world’s sixth largest country was created by the Empress of India, Queen Victoria. It had of course existed since it broke away from Gondwana around 150-180 million years ago, and had been inhabited by various groups of indigenous “Australians” for at least 40,000 years. And collectively the landmass had been called Australia, or a variant on it, since before it had even been discovered – the Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Land of the South) of legend. But Australia had never existed as a political entity. Starting out initially as just one colony in New South Wales, it had grown piecemeal to become five self-governing Crown colonies. On 9 July 1900 Royal Assent was given to an act formally uniting the colonies into one federal government, which took power on 1 January 1901.

 

The Hunter (2011, dir: Daniel Nettheim)

There are a lot of great reasons to like The Hunter, but the way director Daniel Nettheim builds and sustains tension has to be the main one. It’s a real “who is this man, what is he doing, and is he going to get out alive” thriller that drops us in to its story and lets us work things out for ourselves.

Some things we do know. We know that Willem Dafoe plays the shadowy “hunter” Martin, a man with a high-velocity rifle hired by a shady organisation to go and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, an animal reputed to already be extinct. And, er, that’s about it. No, hang on, the shadowy organisation wants some bit of the animal, so it can take its DNA and do something with it, something despicable, we guess. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the man, the gun and the fact that at some point, if Martin doesn’t get the results that the mysterious Red Leaf outfit want, then he’s probably going to become extinct himself.

The quest, the struggle, is elemental, almost prehistoric, and Nettheim and Dafoe spend a lot of time putting us on the hunter’s side, introducing us slowly to Martin, showing us his skill as a hunter – saturating his clothes with wood smoke so the animals won’t smell him coming, for example. The film is similarly saturated with flavour and relationships. For a loner travelling incognito Martin gets about a bit – striking up an increasingly intimate relationship with a pretty mother (Frances O’Connor) and her children (including the remarkable Morgana Davies), or a more prickly one with the semi-affable local guide Jack (Sam Neill). As for the locals, a bitter and foul-mouthed bunch of dirt-poor yokels who don’t much go for the fancy ways of an outsider, they have a hickory pungency that adds to the sense of threat.

Peel back the flaps and the structure is Apocalypse Now or something biblical – the lone man going up a mountain in search of something mythical. But it’s a muddy Apocalypse Now, and we’re never quite sure if Martin is a good guy, though Dafoe’s wise broad face leads us to suggest there might be goodness in there. Possibly. This not-quite-knowingness is the film’s strongest suit, and Nettheim and writer Alice Addison tease us with genre expectations too – the tension of a thriller, the deferred money shot of a quest film, the tease of a fledgling romance, the threat of a borderland quasi-western, the righteousness of the eco-drama. Which will come out on top? Will Martin survive? Does the Tasmanian Tiger even exist? What is going on? Nettheim keeps us hanging on right to the very end.

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The primordial cinematography of Robert Humphreys
  • A performance of psychological nuance by Dafoe
  • The Tasmania settings
  • Morgana Davies, star in waiting

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

The Hunter – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Platoon

Charlie Sheen in Platoon

 

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

 

 

19 May

 

Ho Chi Minh born, 1890

On this day in 1890, Nguyen Sinh Con, later known as Ho Chi Minh, was born, in Hoang Tru, in Vietnam. One of four children, he got an education thanks to the colonial French, at a local lycée, and under the direction of his father, a Confucian scholar. Realising there was little future for him in Vietnam after his father lost his administrative position – influence was everything – he boarded a ship for France, working as a ship’s cook, where he failed to get work in Marseille. Over the next few years he worked on ships, lived in New York and Boston, then skivvied in kitchens in London, where he might have trained as a pastry chef under Auguste Escoffier in 1913. By 1919 he was living in France, and was going by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), and became politically active in pursuit of the rights of Vietnamese people in French Indochina. Nguyen became a communist and in 1923 moved from Paris to Moscow, where he was employed by Comintern. By 1924 he was in Canton, China. After the arrival of the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek in China in 1927, Nguyen returned to Moscow, then went to the Crimea to recover from tuberculosis, then travelled around Europe before arriving in Bangkok in 1928. Over the next few years he continued travelling, organising communist political groups, caballing and intriguing, interspersing political work with spells working as a waiter in restaurants. In 1938 he returned to China, where the communists were now on the rise. He took the name Ho Chi Minh – it means Ho who is Enlightened (Chi), Brightly (Minh) – and returned to Vietnam, where he led the Viet Minh independence movement against the French. During the Second World War this meant he was fighting the Japanese and the Vichy French (who were aligned with Hitler) and he was tactically but tacitly supported by the USA. Ho Chi Minh’s men, ironically, were trained by the US. In 1945, the Viet Minh took control of the north of the country and Ho Chi Minh declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (ie North Vietnam). In 1946, the French counter-attacked to regain control of their colony. The First Indochina War, which would eventually become the Vietnam War, had begun. Ho Chi Minh remained president of North Vietnam until his death in 1969, on the anniversary of the Republic’s founding.

 

 

 

Platoon (1986, dir: Oliver Stone)

Released only a few months before Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is often considered the lesser film. It is the better film, more coherent and authentic, though lacking an R Lee Ermey (Kubrick’s crackerjack gunnery sergeant) around which everything coheres. Stone fought in Vietnam and had already made a film tangentially about it – a short called Last Year in Viet Nam, in which Stone himself played a Vietnam veteran living on the streets of New York – but this was his big shot at the subject. It is still without doubt his best film, and one of the best “this is how it was” depictions of war, a hash of scenes that pitch us into the jungle with that rare figure in Vietnam war films, the recruit who actually volunteered (as Stone did). And we watch as this shit-scared rookie falteringly learns how to become a soldier, all the while fending off suspicious glances from his own guys, draftees who wonder what a college kid is doing here. If war is, as the old adage has it, long periods of boredom punctuated with moments of pure terror, Stone captures that as his platoon of guys hack through the jungle while the enemy – shadowy presences at best – wait and wait and wait. Boredom is one trope, but confusion is another – we’re never sure where the bad guys are, whether the villagers are innocent or whether they are harbouring the enemy, whether the American soldiers who get trigger-happy and just shoot everyone have lost their moral compass or whether, in the end, that’s just the best way to proceed. The fog of war. Charlie Sheen is our fixed point, the narrator and Stone avatar, and around him are faces we didn’t know so well back then – Forest Whitaker and Kevin Dillon and Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp. Others we knew quite well back then, Tom Berenger and Keith David, who we know less well now. Rewatched, the film could do without a lot of Sheen’s soapy narration – Stone knows that Charlie’s dad, Martin, did the pov voiceover on Apocalypse Now so this must be some kind of poor joke – and the two sergeants representing the extreme ends of soldiering (Berenger’s scarred dog of war against Defoe’s sensitive hippie) seem more like placeholders than characters. But what Stone needs to get right – the panic of combat – he really does. Platoon came at the end of the cycle of great films about Vietnam. Kubrick would bring the era to a close later that year. The war continued to inspire films good (Hamburger Hill) and bad (Rambo III), offbeat (Good Morning Vietnam) and sentimental (Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Oliver Stone’s best movie
  • Winner of the Best Picture Oscar
  • Written expressly to counter John Wayne’s The Green Berets
  • Imagine Jim Morrison of the Doors in it, as Stone intended

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Platoon – at Amazon