The Card Counter,
and a few more movies

#210  [archive]
NOV. 9, 2023

The Card Counter (2021) 

In darkened theaters there's only the movie, but I'm never at theaters any more. Watching at home in my undies in the recliner, the cat meows, a truck roars past on the street, my flatmates talk in the kitchen, and my mind wanders from the movie more than it ever would at the Bijou.

Watching this, though, my mind never wandered.

A never-smiling man goes by the obviously fake name William Tell, and makes his living playing blackjack and cards in casinos. He never wins big, because that would draw the attention of casino management, but he comes out ahead at one casino, then moves on to the next. He knows all about how each game works, how to beat it if it can be beaten, and this guy wears a poker face everywhere, even in the shower. 

Obviously this is a casino movie — one man against the house, a genre we've all seen before. Here's the leading man's voiceover explaining the odds in blackjack, and how card-counting works, and how you can use it to beat the house.

And yet, even as most of the story is set in several casinos, it's not a casino movie.

This is about where 'Tell' has been, though he'll never tell, and what he's been through and done that brought him to this life. Along the way, the film touches on themes very few films even mention in passing, but I'll say no more about the plot. 

The Card Counter comes from writer-director Paul Schrader, known for light comedies like Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, Raging Bull, etc. You will not walk away whistling.

Which reminds me, cripes, I could've done without the moaning songs of Robert Levon Bean on the soundtrack, too often mumbling lyrics over or under the story.

Other than that, though, The Card Counter really adds up. Everything fits together so precisely and feels so human, I could write pages about all the small shots, quick twitches, and other elements. They're tiny things I wouldn't have missed if they hadn't been there, but having them there makes the movie so much bigger.

And it comes closer to a happy ending than any Schrader film I remember.

You know, back when going to the movies meant literally going to the movies, I used to read the newspapers' new reviews every Friday. Now most new movies look like torture, but I still read the reviews, still keep in touch, and I keep hearing nothing about Schrader's new movies — not even titles, not even that they exist. 

Maybe I'm reading the wrong websites, because people who care about movies ought to be talking about Paul Schrader, man. After this and First Reformed a few years back, he seems to be one of the few moviemakers still making movies wherein watching 'em requires brains.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The General (1926)
Streaming free

This is one of the unanimously-hailed classics of the silent era, sometimes touted as Buster Keaton's best.

I love Keaton, and he's never disappointed me. Presumably he's great in this, too, but I didn't get very far before clicking it off.

It's Keaton to the rescue for the Confederacy, working against those dratted Yankees during the War of Northern Aggression — and I'm simply not in the mood for that. Not for the rest of my life.

Even a hundred years ago, how were Americans able to laugh at a movie that's rooting for treasonous slave-owners?

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Killing of America (1981)
Streaming free

"All of the film you are about to see is real. Nothing has been staged."

That's the opening crawl for this maudlin documentary about crime and savagery and general nuttiness in America.

It's overflowing with footage and facts about dozens of America's major assassinations and mass murderers of the 1960s and '70s. Much of the video you've seen before, but that's because of the internet — assembling all this 40 years ago must've taken some serious effort.

All the greatest hits of its time are here — Charles Whitman in the tower, the killing of Vietnam protesters at Kent State, the Jonestown massacre, Charles Manson, serial rapists and killers in the '70s, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Jonestown massacre, etc.

Toward the end the visual carnage slows, and we pause for a chat with serial killer Ed Kemper in prison, as he remembers killing women, raping one of them after he'd decapitated her corpse, etc. It's the most disturbing part of the film — not for what Kemper did, but for his relaxed, even charming demeanor as he tells about it.

Then it's on to the murder of John Lennon, and the huge crowd of weeping fans that gathered in New York's Central Park afterward. Amidst that crowd, we're told, two people were murdered.

The film is narrated by the booming bass voice of disc jockey Chuck Riley, who was later the voiceover for TV's Boy Meets Girl. Presumably Jack Webb was unavailable, but Riley does a fine impersonation. Just the facts, man. Just the grisly gruesome facts.

Riley's words were written by Leonard Schrader, who wrote the Japanese sci-fi thriller The Man Who Stole the Sun, which blew me away a few weeks ago. This definitely isn't that — it's only a wallow among the worst of us for an hour and a half, but America (you might've noticed) hasn't gotten better since this was made, so the film remains pertinent.

I do wish it had come to a point, though. It says nothing about why America's gone insane. Is it our love of guns? Our worship of the mystical "rugged individualist"? Our high-sucrose diet of processed foods? What? 

Absent any ideas like that, the film offers only the joy of watching sheer barbarism, and it begins to feel like an unspoken plea for hiring more cops — which absolutely is not the answer.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988) 
Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) 
The Manhattan Project (1996)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Taken for a Ride (1996)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • But wait, there's more  • • •

Alexander Nevsky (1938)
The Bat People (1974)
Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
Brainwaves (1983)
Cellular (2004) 
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Dark Star (1974)
The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)
Downsizing (2017)
Frankenhooker (1990)
The General (1926)
Get Shorty (1995)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Internet's Own Boy (2014)
Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)
Love Happy (1950)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Man Who Thought Life (1969)
The Man with Nine Lives (1940)
Not Wanted (1949)
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Phone Booth (2002)
PickAxe (1999)
Poison (1990)
Revelations (1993)
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
Romper Stomper (1992)
Room Service (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
Saved! (2004)
Scared to Death (1947)
Secret Weapons (1985)
The Shooting (1966)
The Soloist (2009)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Who Farted? (2019)
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. You probably know this, but didn't mention it - Leonard is (was - he killed himself) Paul's brother.

    1. Sorry, he didn't kill himself, my bad - he only killed America. Leonard died of boring old heart disease, reportedly. He's still Paul's brother. I hear they were nuts together in the 70s. Hell, I was ten in the 70s and even I was nuts. Great decade.

    2. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/master-gardener-movie-review-2023

    3. Yup, brothers and Leonard's dead. I wrote but snipped a few sentences to that effect because by luck of the draw there's even more Schrader (Paul) coming next or soon. Never read an interview or anything, but my guess is that their family must've been fucked up.

      Master Gardener looks very Schradereque, and goes on the list. I'm planning to see everything Paul's written, maybe in chronological order.


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