In the earliest days, during the creation of what would eventually became known as modern Scientology, legend has it founder L. Ron Hubbard summoned his followers off to a retreat. There, he reportedly delivered a series of lectures which lasted a mind-boggling 70 hours.
The science-fiction writer-turned-guru intentionally sheltered his growing band of worshipers. By design, they were isolated from reality. Completely removed from outside bearings, they were left alone to their own vulnerabilities and striped of abilities to reason and question what they were hearing as Hubbard preached and pontificated to the point where his voice finally gave out. When the guru could speak no more, the revival was declared done and his flock of followers were set free, indoctrinated with gibberish.
One must wonder — kind of desperate individual would willingly expose themselves to such delusions? Who would voluntarily sit through such a carnival of madness? Perhaps it’s the same curiosity seeker (myself included) who managed to sit through the entirety of a recent film called The Master. Anyone who endured this cinematic ordeal now at least has some idea of what those early followers must have experienced.
Indeed, The Master is an abomination.
One of the worst major motion pictures of the year, this is a thoroughly painful cinematic experience with absolutely no entertainment, nor educational value. Worse, it’s a bore.
How could Paul Thomas Anderson, the same acclaimed director who gave us the utterly brilliant Magnolia and the almost as good There Will Be Blood have created such a meandering misadventure that morphs into such a dreadfully dull and depressing film from start to finish?
When it comes to poker, conveying realism in film is a challenge.
Poker’s essence and intensity is difficult to capture. It’s subtleties are invisible to the naked eye.
In real life, most of the time, poker players sit around. They say nothing. They do nothing. There’s little or no action. The game can be wickedly dull — not just to watch but to play. That’s not exactly the cinematic backdrop you want for a great movie.
For this reason films have a tendency to amplify confrontation. Key hands are wildly exaggerated. Real high-stakes poker games and major tournaments are often won with ace high or a single pair. But in the movies, straight flushes typically steamroll full-houses.
Despite infrequent realism, I tend to be forgiving when it comes to how poker is portrayed in movies. As long as poker scenes convey some sense that what we’re watching could actually happen at a poker table, I’ll play along. More important, the very best poker scenes are not really about cards at all, but rather about people. The game is an acid which slowly burns away the outer layers of hope and confidence of those who lose. Revelation comes slowly over time — hand by hand, card by card, and decision by decision until in the immortal words of writer Tony Holden, “we are stripped bare at the poker table.”
So, what makes a great poker scene?
My view is that for a scene to work, it must convey what it feels like to sit at the table, or at least be in the room as an interested bystander. In essence, we must care. And as hands play out, they must reveal something significant about the players sitting in the game, and ultimately their fate.
That said, here are my nominations for the top poker scenes of all time.
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting these are the “best poker movies” of all time. Rather, these are the “best scenes” ever filmed, including an explanation as to why I think each belongs on the list. Be warned there are some spoilers here, so read no further if you don’t want parts of the story revealed.
6. ROUNDERS (1998) — FINAL CLIMATIC SCENE BETWEEN MIKE AND TEDDY KGB
Comments:Rounders is often overlooked as a major contribution to the poker boom. Five years before Chris Moneymaker ignited the fuse of poker’s global explosion, a quirky film with two of Hollywood’s most promising up-and-coming stars, Matt Damon and Ed Norton, Jr. hit theaters nationwide. The film ended up being a pretty accurate portrayal of the thriving New York City underground poker scene which existed at the time. Rounders has many fine moments and memorable scenes. Arguably the most positive aspect of the film was reinforcing the concept that poker differs from other forms of gambling as a game of skill. The final climatic scene between the hero and villain is a bit over the top, but the hand ultimately breaks Damon free of his bondage to the club and allows him to pursue his dream of moving on to Las Vegas.
5. A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966) — MONSTER POKER HAND IN THE BACKROOM OF A SALOON
Comments: This is a fabulous old-fashioned tale that everyone in the family can enjoy, regardless of having any knowledge of the game. Joanne Woodward is forced to play the poker hand of her life against her will after her husband (Henry Fonda) suffers a heart attack and is unable to continue in the game. Woodward doesn’t know a thing about the rules of poker. So, nearly half of the movie consists of the back and forth banter between our hero and five bad guys, all played to perfection by some of Hollywood’s most recognizable character actors during that time. This isn’t so much a scene, because the hand lasts about 40-minutes long and comes with a stunning conclusion. I’ll say no more other than this is a must-see for any real poker player or fan. No one sees the final scene coming.
4. HOUSE OF GAMES (1986) — UNDERGROUND POKER GAME USED AS A CON
Comments: David Mamet has given us some memorable plays and films, both as a writer and film director. House of Games is all about the con. Everything in the movie consists of one con leading to the next, with the scenes and characters intertwined. While the movie loses some of its steam and credibility towards the end, the opening scene of a backroom high stakes poker game is magnificent. The great magician Ricky Jay (often cast in these kinds of roles) plays the scene’s tough guy to perfection. I won’t reveal anything else. See it if you can. Note: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a direct link to the poker scene. So, I used another scene with a con instead.
3. THE STING (1973) — HIGH-STAKES POKER GAME ON THE TRAIN
Comments:The Sting is an absolute classic. It’s the story of a small group of grifters who pull off an elaborate hoax on an underworld bad guy. Set in Chicago during the 1930’s, the poker scene aboard the train is a favorite of just about everyone that’s seen it. This scene isn’t so much about poker as it is about cheating. Two of the very best actors of their day, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw face off in this high-stakes showdown.
2. CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) — OPENING FIVE-CARD DRAW LOWBALL SCENE IN GARDENA
Comments:California Split is a typical Robert Altman film, where the characters and their lives are essentially the entire movie. So realistic, this film shot nearly 40 years ago perfectly captures the quirky California cardroom subculture and the oddball characters who inhabit poker tables most days and nights. Unfortunately, as it goes on longer, the film deviates from a wickedly funny opening scene, which is posted here. This opening scene could just as easily have been shot today as back in the early 1970’s. Everyone at the poker table could very well be the next lineup of players in tomorrow’s game. Anyone who has ever played in these types of games will instantly appreciate the confrontation and sense of realism. The final scenes of California Split, with the much-noted appearance by “Amarillo Slim” Preston (not included here) is also worth seeing. But this opener with the credit rolling and some narration on the rules of the game as background is a perfect opener.
1. THE CINCINNATI KID (1965) — FINAL HAND WITH “THE KID” VERSUS ‘THE MAN”
Comments: Many serious poker players don’t like this movie scene, for reasons which are technical rather than artistic. Let’s be clear, the climatic final hand played out between Steve McQueen as the “Cincinnati Kid” and Edward G. Robinson as “Lancy Howard” is absurd. It would never happen. Then, there’s the atrocious way McQueen plays the hand, which seals his fate. Finally, there’s the utterly laughable notion that in high-stakes poker games any player can simply reach into his wallet or ask for more credit. It’s ludicrous. So, what makes the such a great poker scene and one that stands above the rest? First and foremost, it’s the way a great poker hand should be shot — from start to finish. The Cincinnati Kid is a boldly realistic movie. It shows poker as a respectable profession for some — unheard of during those times. In their own ways, both of the lead characters are honorable men. They want to win. They want to be the best at their chosen profession. It also shows the grind — which wears down even the best at the game. What makes this scene outstanding is the stellar cast and the final amazing scene. It begins so slowly, so innocently — just as real poker hands do. As each card is dealt, the room full of powerful people becomes more intense. Those watching begin projecting their own hopes, desires, and suspicions upon the hand and the game. The hand plays out to gut punching conclusion, filmed to absolute perfection. An amazing cast. A brilliant movie. A thrilling conclusion. This stands as the best poker movie of all time and the best scene ever.
One more thing: Technically, for poker purists, this scene is much better (and more realistic).
Addendum: One scene I missed in the original article when it was posted years ago was from Cool Hand Luke (1967). This scene shown here certainly belongs on the “Best of….” list:
That’s the announcement that should be made to what would be a stunned audience, come Academy Awards night.
Hey, Hollywood — do us all a favor. Take a hint from the Baseball Hall of Fame playbook this year — which inducted exactly zero players into their coveted chamber. That’s because (arguably) no one really deserved to get in. And that’s precisely what should happen in your industry when you honor the year’s cinematic achievements on February 24th — with half-a-billion people watching worldwide.
Seriously, has there ever been a lousier year for films? Okay, maybe 1918. So far, I can’t think of a single movie I attended where I walked out and said “wow!” Oh don’t misunderstand, there actually were a few moments when I walked out and said “wow.” But that was during the middle of the move. I actually did walk out one of this year’s “Best Picture” nominees. I should probably file a lawsuit against the studio to demand my $7.50 back.
Let’s start with the list, which was announced on Thursday to a chorus of blazing trumpets. And, the nominees for “Best Picture” are:
It’s hard to believe that fifty years have passed since we first met James Bond in his 1962 debut, Dr. No.
Accordingly, inheritors of the spymaster’s enduring cinematic legacy and global marketing empire understood that this anniversary chapter had be more innovative than the rest. This time, movie audiences had every right to expect a sequel that tied up some lose ends between past and present, answering lingering questions about how the young Bond came to be the old Bond. And given the first-rate director and stellar cast assembled for the 24th film treatment of the most famous spy of all-time, one might have even expected the serial to embark in an entirely new direction, enticing yet another generation of future film goers to cheer for the union jack and MI6, regardless of nationality.
Indeed, James Bond endears as the universal superhero. While there’s not much citizens of London, or Mumbai, or Tokyo, or Kuala Lumpur, or Los Angeles, or Sao Paolo might agree on politically or culturally speaking, everyone loves 007. Young and old, male and female, black and white, rich and poor — everyone wants James Bond to kick the bad guy’s ass, and do it with style.
And so, a stellar cast and an Oscar-winning director were tapped for what should have been a slam-dunk monster hit. From the early box office receipts and critics’ reviews, the franchise appears to have succeeded. But profitability aside, is the latest chapter in the Ian Fleming saga really worth seeing?
About a half hour into Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D my wife leaned over to me and blurted out, “Are you as bored with this as I am?”
Frankly, I wasn’t. By that point, my boredom had turned into annoyance.
Things went downhill from there.
Another scene or two passed and our mutual annoyance metastasized even further — into unconditional surrender. We had enough. But the cinematic Rubicon was passed.
In the final scenes towards the end of an overly-long 85-minute test of patience, I found myself talking back at the movie screen mocking the performers, oblivious to those within earshot around me. I didn’t mean to cause a disturbance, but no one else seemed to care. Needless to say, we departed the theater in a fit of rage and disappointment.
This movie should never have been made. It’s a testament to the old edict that if you’re going to do something, then do it right — or don’t attempt it at all.
How in the name of James Cameron — who produced this monumental mess (this one sinks faster than Titanic) — do you screw up something as spectacular as Cirque du Soleil? Who would have thought trivializing death-defying stunts was possible? It’s baffling to imagine a production blessed with many of the world’s most gifted performers, with such an impressive array of set designs and costumes, and some of the most innovative music ever recorded could induce a mass slumber.
How bad was it? For those who have visited the Las Vegas airport, recall the jumbo screen inside the baggage claim area. Think of the 45-second video clips from one show after another. Imagine that highlight reel repeated over and over and over again and then compiled into an full-length motion picture. Indeed, the comparison of waiting for bags at an airport might be appropriate here, except there’s actual suspense in waiting for one’s luggage. There’s no such drama in this montage of monotony.