The Card Player (Czech version) Review
Update - 15th September 2004:
It has come to my attention that a number of people have chosen to wait for the Italian R2 release from Medusa Home Entertainment in the hope that it would contain both the English and Italian dubs. Medusa has an excellent track record for including both English and Italian dubs of Argento's films and, in the rare cases where only Italian audio has been included, excellent English subtitles have been provided. The Italian release of The Card Player, however, features only an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 track and Italian subtitles. Quite why this was done is unclear, but I suspect that either Arrow Films (UK) or Anchor Bay (US), or both, struck some sort of deal with Medusa for English audio to be omitted from the Italian release to prevent imports by British and/or American customers and the expense of Arrow and/or Anchor Bay. If someone could confirm exactly what is going on here, please do let me know. As it stands, the Italian release cannot possibly recommend to English-speaking viewers, or indeed to Italian viewers, given the amount of impact that the film loses without benefiting from the original performances of Liam Cunningham and Stefania Rocca. It saddens me that, in its country of origin, the film is not available with its "original" soundtrack intact.
Technically, the Italian DVD is a reasonably solid affair with a good transfer, although with slightly more edge enhancement than the Czech DVD. The Italian DD 5.1 track exhibits some minor crackling during high frequencies, and is overall less enveloping than the English DTS track on the Czech release. Bonus features include the Italian theatrical trailer, a 15 minute interview with Dario Argento, the same behind the scenes montage that is featured on the Czech DVD, and an Italian making-of, which shows the scene in which Anna is menaced in her home in its entirety, followed by a shortened behind the scenes montage, coupled with brief interviews with Dario Argento and Stefania Rocca. All of these are presented in Italian with optional Italian subtitles.
(I should probably point out upfront that I will be dropping titles of other Argento films like there's no tomorrow, so this review will probably read best for someone with at least some familiarity with the director's main films. Although there are some minor spoilers, I have taken care not to identify the killer.)
Whenever a new film by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento is released, two things can be guaranteed. First, there will be a flurry of activity as Euro-cult aficionados from all over the world desperately try to get their hands on a copy; secondly, intense debates will rage across the internet as fans and critics alike argue as to its quality. Argento's work is nothing if not controversial. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that 1982's Tenebre was the last film that was almost universally liked by his followers. Each subsequent film has had as many detractors as it has had supporters, and while many still believe that the director has that magical spark in him, others had been all too eager to pass his more recent work off as a shadow of his former greatness. Following on from the relative success (in its native Italy) of 2001's Non Ho Sonno, marketed as a "return to form" after the interesting disaster that was The Phantom of the Opera, his latest project, 2004's Il Cartaio (The Card Player) has been followed closely by fans eagerly waiting to see whether the maestro could recapture some of the former glory of his giallo hits of the 70s. When it opened to negative critical reviews and lukewarm audience reaction (despite making more money than Non Ho Sonno, raking in enough to cover its budget in its first few weeks of screenings in Italy alone), many yet again jumped the gun and decided that Argento had lost it. However, I would urge potential viewers not be put off by the critical flak since, although The Card Player is far from the greatest thriller ever made, it is an interesting and rather unusual piece of work that will probably surprise Argento devotees and neophytes alike.
One morning, Rome police inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) receives a mysterious email from an individual calling himself "the Card Player". He claims to have kidnapped a British tourist, Christine Girdler (Jennifer Polley), and wants to challenge the police to a game of online video poker with Christine as the jackpot. If they lose, she dies. If they win, she goes free. Oh, and for every round the police lose, he's going to cut something off. The game is soon set up, and sure enough, Christine is visible on-screen, bound and gagged and in hysterics. The police commissioner (Adalberto Maria Merli) decides that they will no play, and before their eyes Christine is killed. The next morning, her naked body is discovered at the bottom of a lake. The British embassy in Rome sends in John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), an Irish cop booted off to Italy after he managed to kill two people, including a child, in a bungled hostage situation in London. Brennan is on the case till it's finished, and he wants full cooperation. This includes playing the video poker games when more women are inevitably kidnapped, and kidnapped they are. Opposites attract, and Anna and John find themselves falling in love as they work together to track down the Card Player. They soon hit on the bright idea of hiring an "expert" to play the poker games for them, since the police are all useless. The expert turns out to be Remo (Silvio Muccino), a teenager with an incredible track record for winning poker games. The stakes are raised, however, when the commissioner's own daughter, Lucia (Fiore Argento), is abducted, and it becomes clear that the Card Player knows a little too much about both Anna and the goings-on at the police station...
Argento fans in general have three fairly straightforward bones of contention with regard to The Card Player: first, it has very little on-screen gore; second, it stylistically lacks the flamboyance of his "golden era" projects; third, it attempts to court the mainstream. While it is certainly true that these three factors make it the antithesis of Argento's best efforts (by which I mean his uninterrupted run of hits between 1975 and 1987: Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebre, Phenomena and Opera), none of them can really be argued to be completely alien in Argento's oeuvre of work. Indeed, his first three thrillers, known collectively as the Animal Trilogy, had relatively little on-screen blood and guts, and both they and his most recent work from the 1990s onwards lacked the baroque frenzy of colour and light that was Suspiria. The third bone of contention, the supposed "mainstreamifying" of Argento's work, is a little more complicated. Argento has long been a director who has walked the narrow tightrope separating mass market and arthouse with some skill. Seminal works like Profondo Rosso, Suspiria and Opera (my own personal favourites) have enough style to please those simply looking for an engaging visceral experience, while backing it up with a more deep-rooted substance to entertain those with more eclectic tastes. While a handful of his films were pretty "out there" during his golden period, it seems only to have been during the mid-90s, with the release of The Stendhal Syndrome and The Phantom of the Opera, that he made any significant strides to completely sever his ties with the mainstream. Indeed, it was probably thanks to their poor reception (although The Stendhal Syndrome was, in my opinion, a minor masterpiece) that Argento has balanced the scales with Non Ho Sonno and The Card Player, two films that are definitely more mainstream than art-house. I can see exactly why people might see this as a let-down, and indeed I long for the day that he manages to strike a balance between the two opposites once more (The Third Mother, please, Dario?), but I am more than willing to take "mainstream" Argento over the slew of garbage that Hollywood seems insistent on churning out.
The issue of the internet as a plot device was always going to be a contentious one, but The Card Player is actually the first film I have seen that has actually presented computers and the internet in anything approaching a remotely believable manner. Although there are a few cringe-inducing moments, the worst being a scene where the Card Player uploads a virus and the police hackers' displays disintegrate in highly ludicrous animation, by and large Argento sticks to the rules and creates an environment where computers don't do things they wouldn't in real life. The single biggest flaw in this film is the identity of its villain. Apparently changed at the last moment because the original killer was too easy to guess, the new one (whose identity I will not reveal here) isn't exactly an inspired choice. He/she is very much a background character, but the very nature of his/her portrayal makes it obvious very early on that he/she is not to be trusted. It also doesn't help that his/her motivation is extremely weak, to the extent that it is explained with a single line of dialogue during the climax. This would not be the first time Argento has had a disappointing villain (The Cat O'Nine Tails and Non Ho Sonno both spring to mind), but in the past he has at least done a reasonable job of providing them with a motive. In one of Argento's more exotic films this flaw could have been made to feel like less of a problem, but unfortunately Argento here trades in his bold visual style but fails to provide an air-tight plot, motive and villain to compensate. That's not to say that the screenplay is particularly bad - indeed, it is one of Argento and Franco Ferrini's more palatable scripts from a traditional standpoint (unorthodox writing, a la Phenomena or Inferno, would most definitely have been out of place in this film) - but it does feel disappointly by-the-numbers, culling much material wholesale from earlier cop horror movies like The Silence of the Lambs. The film feels at times like it has been carefully concocted to appeal to an established audience, a far cry from Argento's bolder works, such as Inferno and The Stendhal Syndrome. Part of this, I would speculate, is a result of Argento trying to prove himself as a director capable of big box office pulls, since in order to do justice to his upcoming conclusion to the Three Mothers trilogy started with Suspiria and Inferno, he will require a reasonable budget. It is also, I suspect, due to a desire to deliver what his fans want (Non Ho Sonno in particular smelled suspiciously like it was concocted as a "Dario Argento's greatest hits" package), rather than taking risks and going for something more original. This is a shame, since I feel that, by making more unique films, there would be a greater potential for him to deliver outstanding work. This would probably result in some weakers films (e.g. The Phantom of the Opera), but it would also allow his imagination to run riot and potentially come up with something as groundbreaking as Inferno, the anti-conventionality film.
Irreversible cinematographer Benoit Debie decorates the sets with extremely minimalist lighting, resulting in a film that is almost constantly swathed in shadow. The look of the film is almost definitely inspired by the work of David Fincher and Darius Khondji on Se7en, and this again fits into the theory that it was constructed around past successes rather than trying anything new. The 1.85:1 framing is cramped and at times makes the film look like it was shot for television - Argento's most visually impressive films are almost always 2.35:1 affairs - but a second (and third and fourth) viewing convinced me that more was going on than initially met the eye. The compositions are often quite impressive, and the prevalence in the first half of near-continuous camera movement adds a lot to the atmosphere. What's more, we're talking about smooth, precise camera movements rather than the unplanned MTV-style shakycam made so famous by Michael Bay and his ADD-suffering ilk. The opening title sequence, featuring a great deal of fast camera pans and different people drifting in and out of frame, all timed to Goblin veteran Claudio Simonetti's theme music, begs to be appreciated on account of the incredible amount of planning it must have required. The result is a film that looks very glossy and ultra-modern, but I prefer the Technicolor hues and zany compositions of Suspiria any day of the week.
Argento's typically tense set-pieces are few and far between in this film, but those that are present are of a very high standard. A drawn-out scene in which Anna, alone in her home, discovers that she is being watched by the killer and subsequently engages in a nail-biting game of cat and mouse is very effective, although slightly marred by the fact that so much of it takes place in shadow that it becomes difficult to see what's going on (intentional, no doubt, but in my opinion a bad call). A second high-quality scene involves a protracted chase through the back alleys of Rome in the lead-up to the death of an important character, and a third, also involving a lead character's demise after he/she discovers the Card Player's hide-out, is masterfully photographed, extremely shocking and even a little touching. Argento paces the film well, with plot developments flying thick and fast especially during the first act. One departure from traditional giallo mechanics is just how quickly the main story gets going, with the first game against the Card Player taking place within the opening five minutes. This definitely keeps the audience on their toes, and the various video poker games are fraught with tension, in no small part due to the presence of bound and gagged screaming hostages, shown in real-time via a webcam. Although the film lacks on-screen gore, what is implied off-screen is at times very unsettling, and the grainy web-cam footage of the various terrified, screaming women is a good deal more powerful, in my opinion, than explicit blood and guts would be. Although some have criticized them for looking tacky, in my opinion the various naked corpses, all completely prosthetic, are also extremely well-done: some of Sergio Stivaletti's best work to date.
The principal actors are, in an unusual twist for an Argento film, all strong performers capable of carrying the film by themselves. The standout is, unsurprisingly, Stefania Rocca, whose fraught, overworked performance does a lot to encourage audience sympathy. I am incredibly grateful that her on-set dialogue was used for the final audio mix (her English is very good), since it gives her a sincerity so often lacking in gialli. Her role is one that was originally to be played by Asia Argento, reprising her character of Anna Manni from The Stendhal Syndrome (how this would have worked, given Stendhal's ending, is anyone's guess), but when Asia more or less severed her ties with the Argento clan, the film had to be rewritten and the role recast. Liam Cunningham, who likewise is undubbed, is playing a stereotype (the alcoholic Irish cop, whose first line upon bursting into the police station unannounced is "This is all bollocks!"), but he manages to inject some humanity into the character of John Brennan. Silvio Muccino, in the role of Remo, has to contend with a rather poor dubbing job, but he comes across as a likeable individual. The remainder of the cast are the usual hit-and-miss brigade of cyphers, most of whom are dubbed with a variety of quasi-American accents that wouldn't sound out of place in a bad anime dub, although a handful do retain their proper voices (Antonio Cantafora, as the section chief, being one, I believe). The biggest offender is that of the police commissioner, whose stilted performance (including a hilariously flat threat of "We'll get you!" as he points at a computer monitor) is genuinely cringe-inducing. Disappointingly, the appearance of the director's daughter, Fiore Argento (above right), is little more than a cameo, but her presence is certainly welcome. She is also dubbed - a shame, given that she has a very nice natural English-speaking voice.
Overall, The Card Player is not vintage Argento, but it is a competent thriller and is more or less of the same standard is his most recent work. I'm still not sure whether I prefer this to Non Ho Sonno - it really comes down to whether you want Max Von Sydow and Goblin, or stylish photography and internet poker. It seems that Argento is in a state of semi-hybernation, and I only hope that he wakes up, fully refreshed, when the time comes to complete the Three Mothers trilogy next year.
This release of the film is based on the English language version, titled The Card Player. As such, its credits and text inserts are in English rather than Italian.
Presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this transfer certainly exceeded my expectations by a significant margin. The level of detail is very good, and although there is some edge enhancement it doesn't intrude to a particularly great extent. The look of the film is very dark, with very deep shadows and slightly murky whites. There has been some speculation that cinematographer Benoit Debie applied a silver retention process to the negative, similar to what Darius Khondji did on Se7en, since both films share a similar look. The downside to this is that the night scenes show very little detail, and while this was probably intentional, I did find myself adjusting the brightness of my display. Jacking up the brightness, however, tended only to make the blacks more grey, rather than extracting more visual information from the shadows. Colour saturation is also (again, intentionally) quite low, with Stefania Rocca's pale face looking decidedly ghostly. Exteriors have a cold, desaturated look, although this is no doubt partly due to the mostly concrete urban locations chosen.
The print itself is in good condition, with a handful of flecks of dust, although long vertical hairs are visible at various points during the opening credits. The film stock itself is quite grainy, which causes the encoder some problems, with a handful of minor compression artefacts showing up (probably the result of including a full bit rate DTS track and two Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks on the same disc). Overall, a very strong transfer; one that Medusa and Arrow will have their work cut out bettering when they finally release their respective versions of this film.
This release of The Card Player includes English and Czech dubs. The Italian dub would have made a nice inclusion, but having heard it myself I have to say that it's nothing special, and that the English version is definitely the way to go so that Stefania Rocca and Liam Cunningham's performances can be enjoyed with their original on-set recorded dialogue. The disc defaults to Czech 5.1 audio, but can easily be changed either from the menu or with the Audio button on your DVD player's remote.
The biggest pull here is the inclusion of a full bit rate (1536 Kbps) English DTS track - something I never expected in a million years. It has a crispness and depth beyond its Dolby 5.1 counterpart, and I would urge everyone with DTS equipment to not hesitate in selecting it. All three available tracks are slightly let down by the fact that the music at times seems overly biased towards the rear channels, but when I saw the film at the Glasgow Film Theatre I also noticed this, so the fault would appear to lie with the original mix rather than the way it is represented on DVD. All in all, though, the DTS track is superb.
Only Czech subtitles are provided, so deaf and hard of hearing viewers would be advised to wait for a UK release.
The menus are unsurprisingly in Czech, and are prefixed by some brief introductory animation. The actual menus themselves feature footage and music from the film. Since the text is Czech, I have included a translation list below.
On the main menu, the options from left to right are as follows: Play Film, Chapter Selection, Audio Setup, Bonus Features.
The Audio Setup menu is fairly self-explanatory, with the top line selecting the audio track, the middle line selecting subtitles (from left to right: With, Without), and the bottom line either starting the film or returning you to the main menu.
From left to right, the Bonus Features menu has the following features: Behind the scenes montage, Photo gallery, Beyond Re-Animator trailer, Return to main menu.
The front cover of the amaray case features the international promotional artwork (a black-gloved hand over bloody playing cards) rather than the Italian artwork (an inverted still of Fiore Argento's face made up to look like a playing card). The packaging is reasonably well laid out, although Liam Cunningham's name is misspelled on the front. There is no insert.
Unsuprisingly, there is little in the way of bonus materials. Anchor Bay have announced that they are working on a special edition for US release, but that could be as many as two years away.
Behind the scenes montage - Set to music from various past Argento hits, this 9-minute montage shows various scenes being shot, Argento interacting with the actors, and some scenes of make-up application on the prosthetic corpses. The lighting here is overall much brighter than in the film itself, and it is quite interesting to see some of the locations and scenes with this increased clarity.
Photo gallery - A gallery featuring 15 full-screen images, all of them stills from the film itself. A rather pointless inclusion.
For those eager to see The Card Player, whether for the first, second or third time, there is no real reason to wait for the UK or Italian release, since this Czech DVD has excellent audio-visual quality and, barring the Anchor Bay special edition, subsequent releases are unlikely to make significant improvements in the extras department. Provided you don't need English subtitles, you can't go wrong with this release.