Friday, August 28, 2009

The Music of Chance (Philip Haas, 1993)

It's hard to believe, but there once was an increment of time when degenerate gamblers who played cards for a living were viewed as human garbage. Hence, the use of the word "degenerate" in their unofficial moniker. Though, I'm sure they prefer the pompous, "professional poker player," or the more modest sounding, "card player." Anyway, nowadays these once transient hustlers, who used to spend the majority of their time looking for saps to con in backroom poker games, have inexplicably become celebrities. (I still don't understand how sitting at a table in sunglasses warrants round the clock television coverage.) Well, in The Music of Chance (Musik des Zufalls), the image of the shady card player is still intact. Adapted by Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) from his novel of the same name and directed by Phillip Hass (Angels and Insects), the film is a bizarre oddity about luck and the randomness of life. The act of Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) picking up a bloodied and bruised Jack Pozzi (James Spader) on the side of the road sets in motion a peculiar turn of events that end with the pair being forced to construct a stonewall in the middle of a meadow using stones from an Irish castle.

Now, I don't really want to go into how they exactly wind up erecting a seemingly pointless barrier (the property is surrounded by a tall, barbed wire-laden fence), but let's just say, the charming Jack plays poker for a living (he brags that he's basically unbeatable), driving enthusiast Jim has 10,000 dollars burning in his pocket, and their so-called "marks" have been practicing. In other words, their sure thing turns into a nightmare when eccentric millionaires Flower (Charles Durning) and Stone (Joel Grey) beat Jack and propose they work off what they owe by, yep, building a wall.

It's probably a metaphor for unselective nature of luck; after all, Flower and Stone earned their fortune through the most irregular way possible: the lottery. In fact, they could have been supreme beings. I mean, they wore white and lorded over a miniature city. However, I choose to see, and enjoy immensely (its weirdness is subtle yet fully engrossing), the film as a sort of off-kilter buddy flick. One that just happens to feature two excellent performances by James Spader and Mandy Patinkin, as the desperate men at the centre of this accidental masonry story, and leaves you with a deep sense of unease afterward. (It took me days to shake the cobwebs of this film.)

Of course, I found James' more flashy work as the shifty Jack to be far more entertaining (he gets all the best lines and gets to smoke and swear a lot), but I gotta give Mandy props for his cool and calm turn as the pragmatic Jim. Supervising the pair as they work and live on Flower and Stone's land is the always great M. Emmet Walsh as Murks, the man in charge of making sure the task gets done right. The only connection Jim and Jack have with the outside world, Emmet does a tremendous job of creating a blissfully ignorant brand of evil. And since Flower and Stone have gone AWOL, it's up to Emmet to keep Spader's greasy moustache in order and make sure Mandy doesn't go overboard with the high octave singing (he indulges in one song during the celebration of a wall milestone).

The sausage festival that is this movie is thankfully broken up when Samantha Mathis' arrives as Tiffany, an Atlantic City prostitute in a tight orange cocktail-style dress hired to alleviate Jack's horniness. Even though her role basically reduced to sitting and listening to James Spader spew verbal gymnastics in her general direction (he really wants to get laid), I thought Samantha was first-rate as a vacuous, moderately clueless whore.

Yeah, sure, The Music of Chance could have used more of Miss Mathis, but her inclusion in the story seemed like a bit of a stretch to begin with, so I should be thankful she was in it in the first place; even if it was just to help assist the contents of James Spader's under-molested cock and balls to see the light of day.

Oh, and the style of poker played in the film was seven card stud, and like in the bulk of movies that feature the playing of poker, the frequency of premium hands was a little far-fetched. What they should have done was show a couple of hands being folded every now and then just to prove that not every hand was a full house or a four-of-a-kind.



  1. I saw this film in the mid-90s when I was 1) going through a James Spader phase and 2) going through a Paul Auster phase. I honestly don't remember much of it, but my memory was jogged a little reading your review. I totally forgot about Samantha Mathis.

    Philip Haas went on to direct Angels and Insects a couple years later.

    I completely agree about poker players. Their popularity is something I don't understand. And folks say watching golf on tv is boring. Boo hiss.

    Hey, Russ and I were singing your praises over at our RT-splinter refugee group. We're in the middle of an 80s consensus, and we've noted that some of the films that you like are missing the top 100 list. I think Eating Raoul and To Live and Die in LA just missed the cut.

    Speaking of which, I'll try to get going on continuing my aughts list.

  2. From what little research I did, the people who like Paul Auster seem to really like him.

    I'm not surprised; Samantha Mathis comes and goes in a flash. Basically, she has sex with Spader's character, then leaves.

    Never saw Angels and Insects.

    There are a handful of players who have certain charm about them, but the rest have no business being on television. Like the jackass who made a fool out of himself on Survivor: China. His constant spouting of poker-related metaphors drove me insane.

    I love praises, especially when they're sung. :)

    RT-splinter refugee group?!? What's that? Is it a Match-Cut thing?

    Speaking of MC, the guy with the Nashville avatar has District 9 rated "one star" in his signature. WTF? (By the way, I haven't seen yet.)

    24 Hour Party People will be #1 - Steve Coogan FTW.

    Oh, and Mathieu Amalric is featured in my just arrived TIFF guide. (He's in something called 'Les Herbes Folles.')

  3. No, not Match Cut, but something called the RTCD refugees.

    It's actually private (ooooooooh) 'cause when we first formed the group there was this guy who was giving us grief for abandoning the RT ship. He liked Top Secret! so he was alright by me.

    There is MC overlap--Raiders posts in both places, as does Russ. Russ challenged me to get you to join. :)

    We also have an awesome movie database:

    I saw that Nashville guy's (Sven?) one star rating of District 9. :( My mom was supposed to see it today. I'll be interested if she's in my camp or Sven's.

    There's a very famous penis scene in Angels and Insects. An actor is, uh, aroused.

    24HPP is top ten, but not #1. Apparently, my #1 is surprising.

  4. I think I saw this movie back in the early 90's when it came out. It sounds like something I remember. I can't half the time remember now what I've seen and not seen. lol

  5. Karim Amir: How many RT refugee/splinter boards are there? ;)

    I might join. Even though I don't post much on message boards. On the other hand, I do enjoy lurking.

    I'm surprised I didn't catch Angels and Insects when it came out. Not because it has a "penis scene" but because back then I went to see all the period piece flicks. Whether it be Remains of the Day or The Age of Innocence, I was inexplicably all over them like stink on a monkey.


    Keith: Well, that certainly shoots some holes in my theory that this film stays with you after one sees it. Though, to be fair, the early '90s was a long ass time ago.

  6. This film does have an odd, off-kilter vibe that I really dig and it is a film that stays with you long after. I haven't seen this one in ages but your post really has me itching to dust if off.

    I thought James Spader was great in this film. It's almost as if one of his preppie scumbag characters from LESS THAN ZERO or PRETTY IN PINK grew up and this is what happened to them. Spader plays well off of Mandy Patinkin. I would have never thought to cast these two together in a film but they have a fantastic give-and-take thing going on.

  7. RTCD is a perfect place to lurk. It's a slow-moving board, and there aren't many of us, but those of us who are there are a little older.

    I think it's really cool you were into period piece costume dramas (and A&I has great costume design) and now you're into Rinse Dream flicks. Cream of Wheat!

    I just heard Billy Talent on my satellite radio Cancon station. Me likey what I heard.

    Oh, yeah, Auster fans are hardcore.

  8. J.D.: Hey, man, thanks for dropping by and confirming that this flick does has an odd lingering effect.

    Now that think about it, the king of the WASPs and the guy from Yentl do make a strange pair. Not that there's anything wrong with Jews and Gentiles paling around with one another.

    Karim Amir: A little older, eh? Sold! ;)

    My love of costume dramas kinda died when the York Cinema (a two screen theatre just west of Yonge and Eglinton) closed in 2001. It was a classy joint well-suited for those types of films. In that, it had stadium seating (before it became the norm), red seats, and a winding staircase. Seeing Pride & Prejudice or Marie Antoinette at a flavourless multiplex just doesn't have the same allure.

    The fact that you can drop Rinse Dream's name so casually makes me so proud. :D

    I just read a blurb about one of the members of Billy Talent. Though I can't seem to recall if it had something to with him going to rehab or getting married.