Friday, June 8, 2007

Knee-jerk Response to The Card Player

I was so disappointed with “The Card Player” (2004) that I didn’t let myself write the review for days. I wanted to cool down, assess it calmly and then judge whether I still felt it was as bad as it seemed. It is.

Almost everything I’ve watched of Argento’s work from 1996’s “Stendhal Syndrome” onward, has been a complete failure. This is so massively frustrating because his work in the 70’s and 80’s is so brilliant. Argento introduced me to the giallo and has given me my favorite example, “Deep Red” (1975), and it should be a good thing that he continues to work even to this day. The truth is that he simply tarnishes his reputation which each new lame entry.

“The Card Player” is an excellent example of his inability to make his recent films work. The premise is pretty good: a psychotic killer captures girls and forces the police to play poker online for their lives. Most horrifying of all, the killer broadcasts a web-cam of the victim as the game takes place. Not only are the stakes high, but the engagement with modern technology and changing ideas about media and information is a noble effort. The film, however, never once lives up to the possibilities.

The first major problem is simply the choice of poker. Five card draw poker. The choice was probably made because the rules were widely understood by audiences and it could cash in on the enormous online poker craze of the early 2000’s. However, the selection is a poor one because there is no betting, no strategy, no psychological element of bluffing or reading your opponents face or learning their style.

The protagonists, Italian detective Anna Mari and British cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham wishing he were Jean Reno), find a young ace poker player to battle against the killer. They argue over which moves to make and often play very risky. This makes no sense whatsoever, because even if the law enforcement capitulated to the demands to play online poker for someone’s life, they’d at least be smart enough to always play the most intelligent hand. Poker is a finite game with precise odds that can be easily calculated. In 2004 there were already dozens of online scripts and programs that could tell them the best move within seconds. They should NEVER risk doing anything but exchanging the optimal combination of cards.

Maybe it’s because I’m a computer science grad, but the technical ignorance of all the characters (including the requisite techno-babble spouting, obese nerd) is astounding and annoying. Deep into the movie Argento reveals that one of the previous rounds of the “unhackable” poker game was pre-recorded somehow (it knew which choices they were going to make and how long they would pause to think?) opening up plot chasms like he was strip mining.

The movie really needed a game that has skill, strategy, style, psychological elements and/or nondeterministic behavior. Chess comes to mind as a far superior choice, but why not use a first-person-shooter like “Half-Life” or the “Unreal Tournament” series? It would be even better suited to the technology/violence themes and would allow for all sorts of social commentary, irony and nuance. Think of the graphic matching and cross-cutting possibilites! At least the gameplay would give us something mildly interesting to watch and the audience could think about how they might handle the game.

I’m harping on the poker issue a lot because it’s central to the film’s entire structure, but it really isn’t the only reason to hate this film. The characters are flat and lifeless. The pacing is terrible with long tedious stretches and choppy, forced action sequences. The story makes little sense and individual events feel loosely connected. It’s as if the characters were being jerked around by some unseen chains just to get them to one location or another. The red herring is painfully obvious. The killer’s identity is totally arbitrary (I don’t even remember there being a motive) and his acting induces a permanent cringe away from the screen. The final showdown is ridiculous and contrived in a way that reminds me of bad made-for-TV teen thrillers.

The only nice things I can say about the movie are that the techno music was OK, if uninspired and derivative. Also the cinematography and the few interesting set locations (most of the film is shot in an under-decorated police office in front of a computer) were decent, though long gone are the creative camera positions. The acting for the two main protagonists could have been worse.

Avoid this film (you were probably already doing so). Argento needs his old talent and some new ideas. Hopefully his upcoming “The Third Mother” (2007) will do exactly that, but "The Card Player" gives me no reason to think so.


Mad Dog said...

I don't think people are willing to watch (or filmmakers are willing to make) a truly intelligent film featuring video games as a plot element. I have yet to see Avalon, but Oshii should be counted as an aberration, anyways.

I dunno if you saw my last post in the Fay Grim topic, but Video Library's having a sale and I was wondering which of the Hitchcock movies they had that were worth picking up for $12.88.

FilmWalrus said...

Here are my rankings of the films I have seen by Hitchcock with a cutoff "----Cutoff----" where $12.88 would be too high for me.

Most favorites
Rear Window
North by Northwest
The Lady Vanishes (Criterion edition)
Strangers on a Train
Dial M for Murder
Foreign Correspondent
The Trouble with Harry
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1936)
To Catch a Thief
Shadow of a Doubt
The 39 Steps
Least favorites

I would throw out a lot of disclaimers though such as the fact that many I haven't seen in a long time, there are plenty more I haven't seen and quite a few people would disagree with this list (especially about how low "Psycho" and "The 39 Steps" rate).

I can only grant my full approval of the first seven. I should also mention that unless they are very cheap, avoid Hitchcock combo packs: almost all of them are padded with bad transfers of his subpar work.

Mad Dog said...

Poop, they only have Saboteur and another one that isn't on here. And Rebecca. :3

Good news, though: the public library system is going to screen Criss Cross and Panic in the Streets this summer. I'll be sure to catch them.

And Paprika comes to KC June 29th! Woo!

Unknown said...

I like your "knee-jerk responses" because you are able to relatively articulately expand upon what pretty much ends up being to me "well, that sucked." (or in this case..."wtf, Argento!?")

A good descriptions of all the ways this falls so short of what would have been passable...

Anonymous said...

I liked the Card Player a lot more than I thought I would - seems to me Argento knew fully well how ridiculous the whole script was and just had fun with the whole set-up. Taken from this perspective, the show-down and all the set-pieces before (the boat, the "mystery woman", etc.), fit in quite well. I remember when Sleepless came out, some people commented on Argento's apparent disdain for modern technology (with von Sydow's old-school detective obviously being far more competent than his modern counterparts in the policeforce), which seemed in sharp contrast to the enthusiasm displayed in his early movies (especially Bird and Phenomena).
Maybe the Card Player was just Argento's way of poking fun at the "modern thriller" and it's emphasis on technological progress ? Sort of like an episode of CSI on acid ?

FilmWalrus said...

I will certainly give "The Card Player" another chance, but I do wish he could get back to what made him a giallo master. If he is making clever meta-satires of "modern thrillers" I'd ask that they at least be more amusing. Where is the line between poor filmmaking, self-parody and industry indictment? I don't know, because I can't draw a straight line between three things...

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's possible for Argento to go back to what made him a giallo master - he tried with Sleepless and I found the result far worse than the Card Player.
I agree that the Card Player isn't much of a clever satire though, but then again, Argento's humour was always one of the weaker elements in his pictures.
I just remembered his Phantom of the Opera - easily his worst picture, but again an example of Argento trying to make fun of established conventions (or so he calaims nowadays).