In recent years, it's been pretty difficult to find a movie about Las Vegas that didn't suck. It was nice to luck into one on Netflix this weekend.More in this Poker Blog! -->
Hard Eight was originally called, Sydney and it was Paul Thomas Anderson's first film. Within a year after the film's release, Anderson was famous for his Boogie Nights. (If that's not your cup of tea, you might also recall Anderson's There Will Be Blood).
I went into the movie blind, and I think you should, too. By all means, don't start researching it. Wikipedia is one big spoiler.
Suffice to say, it is a decent flick. It has one of the best performances I've seen from John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. Samuel L. Jackson takes a lot from his Jules Winnfield character, but is still pretty damned good. Oh, and it has a very early Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays a young, cocky craps player. Even in a bit part, he still steals the show.
The movie is from a pre-Rounders generation and draws more on the old Vegas we don't see much anymore. It's more about character than plot, but the plot is there and it's not bad at all.
The film has a little bit of poker in it, but barely enough to mention it. It's more about gamblers than gambling.
If you're looking for a decent gambling flick to get you through the crap Hollywood is putting out these days, check out Hard Eight.
(I should point out here... I'd just watched the first act of Appaloosa...which sucked so bad, I would've been happy watching reality TV instead)<-- Hide More
I know a guy with a job that requires he spend a lot of time at the movies. Knowing my connection to the poker world and loose connection to the movie Deal, this friend delights in pointing out that Deal, after several weeks in the theater, still has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This makes Deal, if not the worst, at least tied for the worst reviewed movie of the year. Way to go Hollywood.
PokerNews.com editor John Caldwell asked a good question today. In his column, Caldwell points out that Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man, in most cases, did better on one screen on its opening weekend as Deal did across the country on 50 screens. So, Caldwell asks, "Why does Hollywood fail?"
I came up with a few reasons.
Five Reasons Hollywood Fails So Miserably At Poker Films
1. Hollywood doesn't understand poker
Let's face it. Hollywood knows money and little else. It thinks about what will sell before it thinks about what it understands. That's why a majority of the poker films that come out of Hollywood deal with subjects that don't fairly and accurately represent the game. One common theme in Hollywood poker films is cheating, a subject that is real but rarely as it is portrayed on the silver screen. If it's not cheating, it's a movie climax set around one of the worst coolers you'll ever see at a poker table--quads vs. quads, straight flush vs. royal flush, etc. Even The Cincinnati Kid, one of the greatest poker films ever made, ends with a sick cooler. Finally, Hollywood tends to thrust romance into just about any good story line it finds. True, heartbreak and sexual tension are universal subjects, but in the poker world, true romance is about as prevalent as cheating and occurs about as often as straight flush vs. quads. Until Hollywood can find a way to truthfully write about poker's drama and internal struggle, it will never produce another good poker movie.
2. Joe Six Pack doesn't understand poker
It's not entirely Hollywood's fault. Look at it this way. When you play poker, you're actually hoping you run into guys who don't understand their kicker doesn't play when the board runs out Broadway for a chopped pot. You fantasize about the people who flop top pair and can't understand how they could have possibly gotten away from the hand. So, it's probably a little unfair to expect Hollywood to produce movies for the relatively small subset of people who actually understand the game. Poker purists are going to hate anything that dumbs down the actual poker play, and the general public is going to avoid anything that makes them think too hard. Even Rounders had to explain poker to the audience before getting into the nitty gritty of the game.
3. Poker doesn't understand Hollywood
For Hollywood to be truly successful in making a poker movie that will actually succeed at the box office, it needs to combine the forces of good screen writers with some poker people who understand creativity. To be sure, the poker world has embraced Hollywood and done all it can to get inside it. I have a few "off-blog" stories about this very subject. The problem is that poker people can't quite understand how Hollywood works. Even people for whom I have a great deal of respect have lent their names, faces, and talent to Hollywood productions that don't even deserve the respect of getting MST3K treatment. When the producers are only looking to make a movie and the poker people are only looking to get some screen time, you're never going to see a good poker movie. When smart poker people do get involved, as happened in Rounders, you actually have a chance at seeing something happen. More often than not, however, the poker people are looking for a cameo more than they are box office success.
4. Hollywood is out of ideas
It may make me a bad poker fan, but I actually saw Rounders before I saw The Cincinnati Kid. So, when I finally saw the older of the films, I was surprised to see that the latter took a great deal of inspiration from the former. I once had an English teacher who told me all stories either come from the Bible, Greek mythology, or Shakespeare. Hollywood usually can't even bother to go back that far. That's why The Color of Money got remade as Deal. We've all seen The Color of Money and if we want to see it again, we'll get it from Netflix. Hollywood can blame the internet and the economy all it wants for sagging box office returns. Until we start seeing more originality and less cribbing from the archives, we won't see anything that impressed us as much as Rounders.
5. Individual sports movies are hard to write
Regardless of whether you consider poker a sport (I do not, by the way), when it comes to Hollywood, it might as well be. If you look back at the greatest sports movies of all times, how many of them are about golf, tennis, and bowling? Yeah, about that many. The best sports movies of all time are about baseball, football, and hockey. They are about people making it in a team environment, not competing in individual endeavor. Poker is a cerebral pursuit and one that most folks didn't play after school when they were kids. Writers can't provide the public with much frame of reference. This is not to say a movie like Stroke of Genius was a bad idea to produce. It's only to say that they aren't easy to write and make interesting.
If you look at all of the above, you might think I believe it's impossible for Hollywood to ever produce another good poker movie. Maybe it is. Rounders, at least for this generation of poker players, will be the definitive poker film. I doubt poker purists will be happy with any film that attempts to replicate Rounders, and any film that tries likely won't be a big box office success.
The problem is that Hollywood keeps trying and for every poker movie flop, producers are going to be less likely to try again. So, when someone does finally write something worth watching, getting any major studio to back it will be nearly impossible.
Still, I have some faith. The poker world is an exceptionally interesting and gritty place. If a good writer ever finds a story and can convince a studio to tell the story truthfully, there is the potential for a good film.
After all, if we do indeed take our inspiration from the fount of Shakespeare, we know the play's the thing. Without a good story that makes the viewer believe, poker is just a bunch of people playing cards. Until Hollywood figures that out, we're going to see a lot more 0% ratings on the tomato meter.
Update: For an informed look from someone who knows a helluva lot more about Hollywood than I do, check out Change100's post.<-- Hide More
Bill Gibron of filmcritic.com writes, "This is one case where, no matter the bet, no one wins."
At USA Today, Claudia Puig comes right out of the box with, "21 does not offer audiences a winning hand."
And these people are getting paid to write?More in this Poker Blog! -->
It's almost as if these critics are frustrated gamblers or bad poker players. They are the ones you want to sit at your table despite their ability to parrot the popular poker phrases of the day.
Lucky You was, apparently, a pretty bad movie. I missed that one despite Drew Barrymore asking me to see it (okay, it was a press conference, it wasn't like we were having lunch). But that didn't stop the critics!
Matt Stevens at EOnline tells us, "Director Curtis Hanson's long-delayed poker pic finally plays its hand, with Eric Bana as a Vegas gambler who has daddy issues and a crush on lounge-singer wannabe Drew Barrymore. Should you ante up? Nah, save your chips for a more exciting game."
Think he's done? Well, he also works in: "it's a bluff" and "feel card-sharked" and "low-stakes drama." Wow, a real wordsmith here.
EW.com's Lisa Schwarzbaum does Stevens one better, calling the movie a "no-stakes drama" while also wowing us with witty writings like, "Drew Barrymore, drawing the wrong hand when it comes to casting." She also tells us "the love story is a bluff."
She closes with, "Lucky you, I've run out of topical analogies for now, except for this: A decent movie just wasn't in the cards."
Guess what? You didn't run out of topical analogies soon enough. If people think the movie scripts are bad these days, they should spend 10 minutes reading the reviews. It'll make Lucky You seem like Casablanca.<-- Hide More
The cast is strong and deep: Sylvester Stallone, Jamie Foxx, Gabriel Byrne, Melanie Griffith and Thandie Newton among others.
The story is solid: A young "mechanic" and his hustler partners aim to take down the biggest card shark (and cheat) in the game.
And I had never heard of it.
Is that possible? If it's a movie, I've at least heard of it. And this one is right in my wheelhouse... gambling and grifters. But it wasn't until I forced Lady Luck to watch David Mamet's Spartan (she didn't care for it... I'm a fan), until I actually saw a trailer for this movie.
It's called Shade.More in this Poker Blog! -->
If you've seen a lot of con movies, you'll be pretty familiar with the rhythm of this movie. What I mean is that the twist and turns aren't as cleverly hidden as they perhaps could be. In fact, some of the "cons" seem lifted from classic con movies like The Sting and The Grifters.
As a poker movie goes, it's okay. It's hardly up to the level of Rounders, but I'm sure it's better than Lucky You (which I haven't yet seen). We're not talking about a lot of straight up poker here, but the scenes at the table are enjoyable.
Sylvester Stallone is definitely in a role that suits him. He's "The Dean," the greatest "mechanic" in the world, a player who's never been beaten and who's legend grows every time a story is told. It's a nice departure from the cartoonish hero roles he usually plays.
Stuart Townsend plays Vernon, the young up-and-comer whose hands are pure magic. He enlists the help of two long time grifters (Gabriel Byrne and Thandie Newton) for a chance to take down The Dean in The Big Game. A smooth long con and a gun-fight with heavies from a Vegas mob boss create plenty of drama leading up the final heads-up battle.
It's a sleek, stylish movie which never crosses that fine line between solid con movie and impossible-to-believe farce. If you've got Netflix or Blockbuster Online, I'd suggest you put it in your queue.<-- Hide More
The multi-table tournament had just started. The $200 Pot Limit game was going very well. I'd flopped a set on my first hand. The Hilton Sisters held up on the second hand. The fourth hand was big slick. I made the ace on the flop and forced an angry BB to lay down his cowboys. He kept vowing, "I'm coming to get you, Otis." That surely boded well for me. I was already up nearly two hundred dollars.
But DirecTV was nudging my noodle every couple of seconds. It's coming on! The Cincinnat Kid is coming on!
If only I had TiVo.
I thought for a couple of seconds and decided I would swallow my pride and do it the old fashioned way.
I grabbed an old VHS tape, popped it in the bedroom VCR, and went back to my game.
A few hours later, I finished my game $250 up (the cards ran a little cold after the initial lightening ride). I busted out in 9th (that's the third time I've done that) in the multi.
Although it was starting to get a little late, I decided that perhaps Steve McQueen might be able to offer me something in the way of guidance.More in this Poker Blog! -->
I'll admit from the outset that I'd never seen The Cincinnati Kid. While I like old movies from time to time, I've never been a big fan of films produced in the 60s. More than anything, the films' scores almost always give me the redass.
Nevertheless, I had to see THE poker movie. How could I converse intelligently with my poker brethren without a good base of knowledge on the McQueen flick?
As the film started and McQueen, heretofore known as The Kid, started his mad dash through the train yard, I thought to myself, "They should really re-make this movie and update it for people of my generation."
Thirty minutes in, I realized, "Oh, yeah. They did re-make this movie. It's called Rounders."
For those who have not taken the time to see the film, here's a brief synopsis (my apologies to the readers who know every line of the film by heart). Warning: If you've not see The Cincinnati Kid and plan to, there are more than a few spoliers in here. You've been warned.
The Cincinnati Kid is rolling tough, switch-blade games in the roughest parts of New Orleans. He's looking to make his bones. He wants to be The Man. Thing is, he's not. Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) is. At the same time, The Kid is fighting to maintain a relationship with his girl, Christian (Tuesday Weld), and fighting off the advances of his father figure's wife, Melba (Ann Margret). That father figure, Shooter (Karl Malden), is fighting a massive debt and his inability to repay it without giving up what he values most, his honesty and integrity. The movie culminates in a marathon game of five-card stud in a New Orleans hotel suite.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious and perhaps repeating what other reviewers have, let's review the obvious comparisons.
The Kid=Mike McD
They are both young, experienced players who are bent on making their bones in the poker world. The money doesn't matter as much as being the best. Integrity and fair play are important to both players.
What I find funny is what the 1965 poker eyes saw as a Kid. I don't know how old McQueen was supposed to be in the movie, but in reality his was 34. Mike McD was a law student. Today, early-20s kids are playing on the net and busting the pros at the WSOP. However, some of those kids of today are like Chris Vogl, the engligh brat who won Event #1 of the WSOP this year and proudly proclaimed to the ESPN cameras that he didn't care about the glory. He only wanted to money. That's another post for another day, but let me be the first to say that Vogl is an oaf. Keep playing for the money, kid.
If you're like me and watched The Cincinnati Kid after you watched Rounders, you might think at first that Karl Malden is the Rounders equivalent to Mike McD's law professor. Turns out, Shooter is Worm almost through and through. He's in debt up to his ears. The only way he can dig out is to cheat. His cheating ends up putting The Kid in jeopardy. Sound familiar?
It's actually not as much of a question mark as I make it out to be. Howard is a combination of Teddy KGB and the WSOP. In Rounders, McD has to make it through KGB to make his run to Vegas. In The Cincinnati Kid, Lancey Howard is the both brass rings wrapped up in one.
Both are the guys who are turning the screws on the protagonists' best buddy. Both are vicious and unrelenting.
While not exactly the same, the plot points are similar. The Kid's girl doesn't understand his poker and only wants him for love. Melba (a painfully sexy Ann Margret) just wants a piece of the Kid's ass because of who he is. The Kid has to fight to keep the game honest because he wants to win for real.
Upon a little reflection, here's the official analysis of The Cincinnati Kid vs. Rounders:
The Cincinnati Kid is Rounders if Rounders stopped when McD lost his roll to KGB. Simple as that.
Rounders is The Cincinatti Kid, plus the tale of what happens to the Kid after he collects his thoughts and gets back in the game.
Here's an interesting tidbit about 1960s America vs. 2000 America.
The Kid loses the game, but gets the girl.
Mike McD wins the game but loses the girl.
Both are Hollywood endings, but for different generations. They both follow the same theme of "we must sacrifice to succeed," but the movies differ in what success actually is. I think that is an interesting window into a forty-year gap in America's thoughts on success and love.
Speaking of girls, and forgive me for saying so, but give me Tuesday Weld and Ann Marget any day over the supermodels of 2004. Most of today's actresses don't hold a candle to Ann Margret's hyper-aggressive sexual come-ons and Tuesday Weld's girlish innocence. And the bodies on those women...
Sorry, my wife is pregnant. I've been a bit, uh...lonely recently.
So, that's the dimestore analysis after only a night of sleep and three Diet Mountain Dews. I'm sure many more parallels can be drawn. Those are simply the ones that come to mind first.
I wonder what the next great poker movie will be?<-- Hide More
Some people play poker to make a living. If they're just barely good enough, they'll grind out a living like Knish in Rounders. If they're really good, they won't have to think about working another day in their life.
Two independant filmmakers have had a little trouble finding financial backing to make their movie. The solution? How about some tournament poker?More in this Poker Blog! -->
Taking a Shot: High-Stakes Gambling, Moviemaking, & the New American Dream is a new movie project from Camden Pictures.
I only found about this movie because the website linked to an Up For Poker entry about the television explosion. Our link landed among links from AdAge.com and Business 2.0.
I spent the next 5 minutes reading all about it. It's fascinating. They've been to the Four Queens Poker Classic and The World Poker Finals in Foxwood. Next month they'll be at the Jack Binion World Poker Open. It all ends at the granddaddy of them all, The World Series of Poker next May.
It helps that one of the two producers, Susan Genard, has some poker tournament experience. She finished 14th out of 127 players in an Omaha Hi-Lo tourney at Foxwoods. That meant a paycheck, and more money to make the film.
With the poker explosion we're seeing, I've got to imagine there is more money behind this movie than just they money they make at the table, but that doesn't take any luster off the project.
When this documentary finally makes it to a big or small screen, we'll hear from some of the top tournament players in the world. We'll also hear from everyone from celebrities to dead money.
Who knows, maybe we'll see Susan at the final table next May, and they'll be able to make a big budget poker movie (starring Wil Wheaton?).<-- Hide More