Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let's Try This Again Next Year

I've been pretty spotty with my writing lately, mostly because I try to give real life priority when it starts demanding it. Lately, real life has been pretty needy. But any concerns in my life pale in comparison to those of the families affected by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut this past weekend. To be honest, I don't even want to write about the shootings. I don't want to think about them. I avoided any news for the entirety of last weekend because there were details I just simply didn't want to know. I'm not sure if it was the magnitude of the tragedy or the fact that having been a teacher increases the emotional proximity, but the news hit me in a way that events I'm personally disconnected from usually don't.

Almost as if on cue came the cries of blame - the endless search for some connection, some simple explanation to a supremely irrational event. At best, these accusations were aimed at a constructive solution to prevent events like this from recurring. At worst, they used the tragedy to fuel the fires of their own hatred. It now appears that any attempt at a rational explanation is increasingly futile, as the connections between the killer and his victims become tenuous to the point of vanishing. I've long imagined true horror to be evil that exists without obeying logic. This, if anything, fits that description.

I realize that this post might seem somewhat out of place in what's typically a film blog, but I can't at the moment disengage myself from the real-life horror of Newtown to write about fictional horror. While I'd like to believe the films and media I consume exist in a space separate from reality, it's impossible for me to pretend that there's no overlap between the two. Films are a lens that I use to examine the real world at a safe distance, but at a time like this, the image doesn't need any magnification or distortion. Nothing that we can imagine and superimpose on reality could ever match the horrifying senselessness of a gunman opening fire on children in an elementary school. The reality needs to sit there, stark, and fade slowly on its own accord.

When I sat down this week to write a new post about a film, I came up dry. It felt petty. I can't summon the emotional wherewithal to send all the true horror to the back of my mind and separate the twin realms of film and reality. I can't force myself to analyze fake murder and make light of death when the real thing looms so prominently.

These are my failings, not that of filmmakers, authors, bloggers, or the genre we all spend so much time poring over. I've said before, and I still maintain that the horror genre is a necessary tool to examine the evil in the world from a place of safety. I'm not abandoning this blog or neglecting it out of some new fundamental disdain for horror. There simply isn't enough space in my head to accomodate both the real and the fictional right now.

I'll be back next year, hoping to write more consistently, and hoping that society will become increasingly compassionate and humane in the wake of an act more terrible than any film or novel could imagine. Until then, thanks for indulging my digressions. I hope you're able to enjoy the holidays with those that you love.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Death by Yahoo! Poker in THE CARD PLAYER [Argento-thon]

The Card Player (2004)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 4.5 / 10

Warning: spoilers ahead, because it doesn't really matter for this movie. 

After Sleepless, Argento continued to move toward thrillers more grounded in reality and toned down the extreme style that had characterized his earlier work. The Card Player was initially intended to be a sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome that would follow detective Anna Manni on a new case. Asia Argento was unavailable for the role however, so instead the story was modified slightly (along with the heroine's name), and introduced detective Anna Mari, played by actress Stefania Rocca.

The Card Player marks a new development for Argento in that it uses legitimate technology to drive the plot. Argento has long been fond of dropping little bits of psuedoscience into his films. While these sometimes provide a pivot on which the story will turn (most prominently the end of Four Flies on Grey Velvet), they're never really the focus. In The Card Player, the internet is essential to the plot, particularly an internet poker game that resembles something like Yahoo! Poker. There's a killer on the loose who's brazen enough to directly challenge the police by establishing an online game in which he and the detectives will play for the life of an innocent woman. Okay, it's farfetched, but grounded in real-world technology at least.
The most dangerous game.

When Detective Mari gets the first email from the killer, she disregards it, which ends up having disastrous consequences. To help her track down the man who just killed a woman in front of the entire police station, she's paired up with an awesome Irish cop named John Brennan, who remains true to the stereotype in every way. Brennan is constantly drunk, belligerent, and generally a bad-ass. After receiving a second challenge and naively thinking they'll just play and win, things end poorly again. So the detectives decide to do what any sensible person would: go to the nearest poker club and blackmail a "poker prodigy" into playing for them.

Now watching a series of online card games might not sound riveting, and truthfully it's not always. But Argento does his best to film the games in a suspenseful way. It might not have turned out exactly how he intended, but it ends up being incredibly entertaining. Whenever there's a poker game, it isn't just Mari sitting at her desk clicking around on her computer alone. No, every cop in the entire building shows up and crowds around the screen. What's more, they're the most foul-mouthed Greek chorus I've ever seen, and provide constant commentary on the game. Every time Mari loses a hand there are approximately fifty voices shouting "Oh, fuck!" "God damn that asshole!" and "Fucking shit!" all in wonderfully broken English. When they finally manage to win a hand, the poker prodigy jumps around the room screaming "Fuck you! Ha ha! I did it!" with a cacophony of fuckwords and taunts shouted in the background. The amount of gloating and trash talk in this movie is off the charts, and it's massively entertaining.

Fuck you! I'm-a gonna win!
The poker games continue, as do the murders, and the plot reaches a climax when the killer breaks into Mari's house and kidnaps her. His brilliant idea: to handcuff both of them to some train tracks and force Mari to play poker for her life on a laptop he's dragged along. It's best to just let you watch this scene for yourself:

Is this a good movie? No, not really. Is it entertaining as hell?  Definitely, provided you can disassociate it entirely from everything you know about Argento. The corny plot and over-the-top acting make this one fun, but seriously forgettable. If you need something cheesy to enjoy with a group of friends, this would qualify. Just make sure (like I did) that the wine cellar is fully stocked. On an absolute scale, there's nothing here that's memorable.

The Good

It's entertaining just because of how ridiculous it gets. While card games might not be intrinsically riveting, the enthusiasm that the cast brings to the material makes them pretty fun.

The Bad

The goofiness undermines any attempt at the serious moments that the plot seems to strive for. The acting is awful, due mostly to non-native English speakers delivering their lines in English.

...the Hell?

How does a man who dances around like a maniac and refers to corpses as "his dolls" keep his job as a mortician?

After being submerged in water for a day or so, corpses will blast out a high-pressure stream from their mouths. Keep your face clear!

The Verdict

The Card Player is Argento's attempt to stay relevant in a new era of filmmaking. While stepping into the realm of the techno-thriller and writing a story that's a more quickly paced give his film a more modern feel, it ultimately comes off as campy. Entertaining, true, but maybe not in the way that Argento intended.