Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Crazy Heart

I'll have a review of Scott Cooper's direct-to-Netflix film tomorrow—the review of Cooper's Hostiles is one of the most looked-at articles on this blog (I've never known why—except for maybe the D.H. Lawrence quote about the American character that's mentioned in it). But, here's one—written at the time of this Cooper film's release, and there's a bunch of preamble about Oscar strategy (which seems to be spending too much time in the news-feeds lately).

"Breaking Bad"
I Used To Be Somebody, Now I'm Somebody Else
At the end of each filmic year, theaters are filled to their google-plexes with all sorts of movies. Because of the Holidays, there's plenty of people wandering around major areas of assembly with the occasional two hours to kill, so Christmas is as profitable a time to the studios as Summer. Every conglomerate pushes and shoves to squeeze in one more blockbusting crowd-pleaser to blacken the year-end red ink.

Then there are the films that have been positioned to impress the critics' societies and are launched into Los Angeles and New York, so they can be eligible for awards, most pointedly The Oscars. And in that sub-category, there are the waifs—the ones that open in those markets and take a little longer to reach Biloxi, because, frankly, the studios would rather launch heavier weights during the Holiday Crunch, then release the films they feel will have only a niche market, that might have a respectable run in the projection booth, before reaching a more sizable audience in the rental market. The reason they're there is for the Awards, and usually for an acting honor to someone who does consummately good work, but has never played a "disease" role, or worn heavy make-up to win. 
I'm talking about films like, recently,
with Peter O'Toole, Being Julia with Annette Bening, even last year's The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. Earnest films with Oscar "buzz" for their stars, the kind that were mocked by Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration.
This year's it's Crazy Heart.
The story of an alcoholic country singer-songwriter, on a Southwest tour of what they call (in the biz) "toilets," merely reflects the downward spiral "Bad" Blake (Jeff Bridges) has put himself into. Perpetually boozed up, touring in the same old station wagon (old "Bessie") he used in the early days when he was more successful, his life is comprised of using things up and tossing them away—cigarettes, bottles of booze, ex-wives (five of them, maybe four, he can't seem to remember), he still has the talenthis reporter-inquisitor, a single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) from a Santa Fe newspaper that he begins a relationship with, says he can still toss off a song instantaneously that most people would struggle years to write—hasn't completely left him. But, that may be the last thing to go. He hasn't written a new song in years—the writing skills are there, but the inspiration has long ago moved on. It's one more thing taken for granted in a career that brought easy success that couldn't be maintained in the living of it.
The fur-bellied snark in me would say I'd been to this rodeo before in a fine film two decades back called
Tender Mercies, which spotlighted Robert Duvall (and in a mirror reflection, he has a small role in, and executive produced, this feature), and had more of a spiritual nature to it. There's no God in Crazy Heart (scripted and directed low key by Scott Cooper), as reality and responsibility is tough enough to fathom for Bad.
But it's a good movie for Jeff Bridges, who is always so good—his small part in The Men Who Stare at Goats was a comedic and dramatic gem, he being the only actor in it to quietly evoke deep sympathy, let alone belief—that he's always in danger of being taken for granted in the periphery of other folks' vehicles. This time, though, the spot-light's on him, and he's buttressed by a solid cast of actors lending their own mega-wattage to the brightness surrounding him. That includes Colin Farrell, buried deep in the credits to not attract attention, in a terrific performance that reflects kindly on his "mentor." Another nice thing is that T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton have composed clever, old-style country songs in the keys of both Farrell and Bridges, so they never seem less than authentic on-stage.
That extends to the story, too, which resists the epiphany lesser hands might have constructed. But like an old country song, the emphasis is on transitioning, rather than succeeding, maintaining rather than overcoming, in being rather than having dreams come true.
Sometimes the triumph is in recognizing what one's taken for granted for so long
Hope he gets that Oscar.*

* 2023 Update: He did. And Crazy Heart won for Best Original Song.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Don't Make a Scene: The Sting

The Set-Up: It looks so simple in the script.
David S. Ward's shooting script for The Sting makes it look so easy. But, a lot of directors say they hate scenes with card games. 
There's the continuity issues. Cards need to be in right positions and chips—the chips!—need to be stacked just so and remain that way from camera set-up to camera set-up. Not just in the "pot" but also individual's piles of chips. And the set-ups guarantee that you're always going to be looking at the back of someone's head or around somebody's shoulders out of focus in the foreground. So, unless you choose the "Julia-Child-cooking-show" of an overhead camera looking down—"The Instagram dinner plate shot?"—there's no way for everybody to be in the frame.

Then, there's the rules, the rituals (a good site explaining poker can be found here)* that have to be done in order, but are usually broken up in parts, all requiring a different camera angle, and the actors to be in the same approximate body language each time. It's a nightmare of continuity issues just waiting to be mentioned in the "Goofs" portion of your IMDB page.

The big one here is that Ward wrote a script for a game of "Straight Poker" (which has no drawing of cards after the initial bet), where what they're playing in the scene is "Draw Poker" (where once you've bought in, you can switch out cards to be dealt new ones). This caused all sorts of issues when laying out the scene with the script. Hopefully, it's not too confusing—I tend to favor what's "on the screen" to what was scripted.

Also, you can write a poker game on the page. Easy enough. You can eeven describe strategy and what the person is feeling. Ward did it in his script. But, men sitting around a table throwing cards and chips is just not an exciting visual in a visual medium. You have to add something to it, and that usually comes down to personality and how un-poker-like the faces of the participants are.

Here, you have five guys and the conductor-"bank" all crowded in a little room playing a game that's supposed to be "hush-hush".  In Ward's script, the conductor, Clemmons, intoduces Gondorff's alias "Mr. Shaw" to the poker players:
Mr. Shaw is a bookmaker from Chicago.
Mr. Shaw, meet Mr. Clayton from Pittsburgh, 
 Mr. Jameson, Chicago,
Mr. Lonnegan, New York, and
Mr. Lombard, Philadelphia.

The only guys we care about are Gondorff's "Shaw" and Lonnegan, the villain of the piece. But, Lonnegan cares what Mr's. Clayton, Jameson, and Lombard think. It's his game, his reputation, and his humiliation if he lets this "Mr. Shaw" jack-ass drunken bookie win at the game. Shaw treats everybody like a punching bag, is a sore loser and a horrible winner and nobody likes him. Especially Lonnegan.
But, we keep going back to "the other guys," especially Jameson and Clayton for reaction shots and reaction shots of Lonnegan reacting to their reactions. They're important to the psychology of the game, even if they play no part in it. And Paul Newman gets to fill in some stage business by having Gondorff constantly looking over his shoulder to see if anybody's spying his cards (Newman does lots of business while Shaw does everything with his eyes). But, they're "small potatoes" in the scene, though they play a part.
The guy most people remember and who does a lot of heavy lifting in this scene is "Lloyd," Lonnegan's bodyguard and deck-"cooler," who stacks a deck for Lonnegan to switch after their "little break." Director Hill cuts back to him a lot, mostly because the guy playing Lloyd—character actor Charles Dierkop (he of the perpetually flattened nose)—is hard to miss looking over Paul Newman's shoulder reacting to the game. Inadvertently, he becomes the center of the scene, because of everybody in the room, he has the most to lose. He's the guy who stacked the deck, takes pride in his work, and is left genuinely berieved at how things turn out ("Did I mess up? I don't think I did! But, the cards are different and the boss who was proud of me a couple minutes ago is pissed at me now!"). Most importantly, he's "the capper" for getting out of the scene on a light note.
It's not there in the script. It looked so easy!

The Tale: Small-time grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) is after gambling gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) for the murder of his pal, Luther Coleman. Luther had once advised Hooker to seek out Chicago con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Hooker, on the run from the law and Lonnegan, leaves Joliet for the Big City to learn "The Big Con" in an effort to take Lonnegan down. To finance the grift, Gondorff books passage on the 20the Century Limited as a bookie named "Shaw" and talks his way into one of Lonnergan's high-stakes poker games. 
What Lonnegan doesn't know is that, earlier, he'd had his wallet "lifted" by another member of Gondorff's gang.

You're up, kid.

The game plays out differently in writer David Ward's script. Where it matched the finished product, I kept it. If something was taken out, I've done a strike-through of that portion, and additions are marked in Green.
The room is dense with smoke now, and the players are feeling the heat. Gondorff has his white shirt open, revealing a stained T-shirt underneath. The bottle next to him is almost empty. 
He sneezes 
and wipes his nose with the tie Lonnegan gave him. 
The chips are now about equally divided between Gondorff and Lonnegan. The others are losing badly. 
I'll bet 3. Raise 300.
(throwing in his last few chips) Call. And raise 200.
No. Pass. 
I'm out.
Call. Two and call.
Aces over.
Jameson lays down two pair.
Three cowboys. 
All red. 
Queen high. 

Gondorff has a flush.
Gondorff rakes in the chips, which now put him ahead of Lonnegan. 
JAMESON Well, that finishes me. I'm out. 
Don't worry about it, pal.
Lemongan here They wouldn'ta let you play in the game if you weren't a chump.
Lombard will be joinin' you here in a couple minutes.
JAMESON Now, look here, Shaw...
LOMBARD(interrupting)I've had enough of this game and QUITE enough of this company. Check me out, Clemons.
I guess that just leaves the three of us.
That's right, Mr. Shaw. It just leaves us three.
Mr. Clayton, I think we should take a little break for five minutes.
Temperatures seem to be running a little high.
Aw, c'mon, Lineminn, I'm just startin' to DO good!
Lonnegan smiles and chuckles.
Gondorff responds with a drunken laugh.

LONNEGAN (getting to his feet) I've had enough of your lip, Shaw. 
Gondorff grabs the whiskey bottle next to him, breaks it against the table and waves the jagged end in Lonnegan's face. 
GONDORFF (barely able to stand up) Just take it easy there, Larrabee. 
Jameson and the conductor step in between. 
JAMESON Let's take a break for a couple minutes and cool off. 
Lonnegan storms out of the room, followed by Floyd and Bodyguard. 
We pick up Lonnegan coming down the passageway to enter the smoking room. 
(to his assistant) I've had it with that bum, Floyd. Stack me a cooler, Floyd. 
(trying to settle him down) You've only been playin' three hours, Doyle. C'mon Doyle, we'll be in the station in another hour. The other guys are the big losers. You're still okay.
(not to be pacified) I don't care. Load me a deck. Set it up for threes and nines. I'll cut it in on his Clayton's deal. 
(taking a deck and beginning to sort it) What do ya want the others Clayton to get? 
Nothin'. They gotta be outta there early. I'm gonna bust that bastard bookie in one play. 
Four hundred to you, Mr. Jameson. You're even.
A pair of hands shuffling. We pull back to reveal that they're Gondorff's Clayton's.
Well, I guess it wasn't my night.
He passes the deck to Lonnegan to be cut and turns to pen a new whiskey bottle. 
Lonnegan takes the deck 
and in one lightning motion substitutes a new deck, 
while making it look like he's cutting the old one.
Clayton antes.
Gondorff antes.
Boy, I need it...
Know what time we're supposed to get in?
JAMESON No, I don't... 
Hey, where's your ante?
Clayton picks up the deck and begins to deal. 
As the hand is picked up, 
we see that Gondorff has four threes,**

Lonnegan four nines, 
and everybody else has nothing.

Your 5.
One thousand.
CLAYTON (opening the bidding) Fold. 
I'll play.
GONDORFF 500.  Raise 1,000.
And one thousand. 
Raise 500.
The spectators shift a little. It's the biggest bet of the night.
GONDORFF Your one thousand.
I'll raise you two thousand. (slowly) Raise 2,000.
Gondorff looks at Lonnegan very carefully for a second.
two thousand...
LONNERGAN Mr. Clemmons...give me ten thousand dollars more.
Lonnegan meets his stare.

GONDORFF I'll Call. 
LONNEGAN Four 9's.
Lonnegan puts down his four nines. 
Gondorff just stares at them a second, 
lets out a deep sigh and lays down four jacks.
GONDORFF Four jacks.

Lonnegan is aghast. This just can't be. 
He glances at Floyd, 
who can do nothing but sit there with his mouth open. 
GONDORFF (raking in the chips) Well that's all for me tonight, boys. I'm gonna leave ya some cab fare. 
The other players look at each other in disgust, and reach for their wallets, all of which are well stocked. 
(to Lonnegan) You owe me 15 grand, pal. 
Lonnegan, with a stare that could kill, reaches for his wallet.
Suddenly the stare goes soft. 
He tries a few more pockets.
No soap. 
(getting up to get it) I guess I Must have left it in my room. 
(blowing up) What! Don't give hand me that crap you little weenie. How do I know you ain't gonna take a powder
(waving his wallet, which is full of Lonnegan's money) 
GONDORFF You come to a game like this, you bring your money. 
GONDORFF How do I know you won't take...  
a powder?
Lonnegan, having had all he can take, goes for Gondorff, but is restrained by the conductor Jameson.
JAMESON No-n0-no-no
All right, buddy, I'll tell you what I'll do.
I'm gonna send a boy by your room in five minutes,
GONDORFF ...and you better have the money that jack, or it's gonna be all over Chicago that you welched. your name ain't worth a dime.
You won't be able to get a game of jacks!
GONDORFF Cash me in for the rest of these bones.
Gondorff stalks out of the room. 
We pick him up coming down the passageway to his compartment.
Words by David S. Ward
The Sting is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Home Entertainment. 

* My diligent research for a good poker site took hours of my time, many, many downloads, and an ample number of—uhh—"investments" that could end up with my legs be broken as collateral. But, the research is DONE. Please, I don't need suggestions for helpful sites written in the "Comments."

** Yeah, I know, he doesn't. I chose to correct the script dialog, but not the stage direction...which has the bets different—interestingly, Ward has Gondorff be a lot more aggressive in his betting with Lonnegan lagging behind, which is weird, both as a strategy and as a gangster personality trait) and doesn't even have a draw. Like in poker, ya gotta choose your battles.