Review of HBO’s Luck, Episode 4: The Metaphysical Dialogues

February 21st, 2012 | by Frank | No Comments »










Director: Michael Mann
Writer/Producer: David Milch
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Jill Hennessy and Jason Gedrick.

Episode 4: The Metaphysical Dialogues   

When it comes to listening, is there a better actor in the world than Dennis Farina, who actor who plays Gus Economou, the chauffeur and confidant of Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) in HBO’s soul searching horseracing series, Luck?

With almost every line, the camera follows Farina’s bemused and delicate facial mannerisms as he navigates the emotional transactions between himself, his boss and the world. Ace doesn’t trust or fully understand anyone, except maybe Gus, no matter how much power he still retains.

Episode 4 features some of the best dialogue so far on the show, and some of the best that I’ve ever seen on TV.

In the closing scene of Episode 4, Gus listens to Ace weigh his feelings towards Claire LeChea, an activist who hopes to tap Ace to help in her effort to rehabilitate prisoners through their work with broken-down racehorses. 

“She seems like a very nice woman,” Gus says, after Ace claims he simply wants to help her out—and that he has no ulterior motives.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Bernstein says.

Ace smells the letter he got from Claire.

“I found her pleasant right off,” Gus says.

““Yeah, well don’t look at me like I got intentions that I haven’t had for some time.”

“How do you know I’m looking?”

“I can tell.”

“Well for however I’m looking, I apologize, OK?”

“Sexual attraction and so forth, that ship set sail some time ago and left port. If I can help the woman, that’s what I want to do.”

“She seems like a very nice woman.”

The camera lingers on Bernstein as he seems about to cry.

“I’ve been confused about my behavior for some time now, I’ll tell you that.”

This confession, where characters judge themselves in a harsh, unforgiving manner, is typical of the scenes in this show. Behind the brute force, the bravado, and the arrogance of having “luck” on your side, it all means nothing when your soul is on the line.

Ace is like everyone else in this series—he judges himself with equal measures of hope, delusion and self-retribution.

There is no mistaking the spiritual directions of this series—and I mean spiritual in the most metaphysical definition of the term.

For Bernstein, the real question is whether he can simultaneously pursue retribution against those who betrayed him—a sentiment fueled by Gus and an emotion driving each scene in which Hoffman appears–and still find something inside him that would let him truly love someone.

The morning line in my book says Bernstein can’t do both. What do you think?

Jerry Stands Face-to-Face with the Devil (Himself)

Episode 4 opens with Jerry dousing his face over and over in the casino bathroom, drained of hope, lost in more ways than money can count.

He stares at himself in the mirror, silently tormenting himself.

What am I doing? What is happening to me? How can I lose this badly?

Jerry looks like hell. In a nearby stall, we hear the arrogantly pissing Leo, delivering a sermon on the “baby reasons” Jerry keeps losing his ass at the card table.

“Jerry, you’re not strong,” Leo says. “Right time comes, you show your ass….maybe some baby reason…time comes your baby reason…make you’re playin’ and the cards won’t let you. Anyhow, you say ‘fuck  the cards’….maybe I get lucky…I want to be lucky for my baby reason…that’s how I know you show your ass to me, Jerry.”

Jerry dries his hands and says, “The thing you want to be careful with Leo…is my baby reason don’t wind up splitting your head open for you first.”

On the surface, I am not sure I fully understand this dialogue. All I know is that I have never heard anything close to this on TV.

Jerry is separated from the only family he has, the pick six crew. Down at the track, the railbirds gather to see what the luck looks like for the day. They know that Jerry is in big trouble.

They eventually bail him out, but not before Jerry has lost a mountain of money.


Getting Up Mornin’ and the Deliverance of Trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte)

In episode 4, Walter Smith sends his horse out to a victory. There is a palatable yearning, watching Smith will the horse from the back of the pack to the finish line.

Nolte rocks back and forth, mutters to himself, prays, anything it takes.

The scene is supposed to be happy, but there is overwhelming sadness at the outcome.

Is this what deliverance feels like?

Once, again, after the horse wins, there is a confessional scene where Smith is talking to himself, face to face with Getting Up Mornin’, but is actually talking to the horse’s sire, Delphi.

“No mistaking, Delphi.  This is your son.”

“You know I hope to god you can see him.”

“Anyways, he’s your son.  God I hope you know that.”

Nolte delivers this monologue like a prayer, as if owning up to something we do not yet know, literally throwing himself at the mercy of Delphi.

It makes you wonder if Nolte somehow compromised his values and was somehow responsible for the death of Delphi.

All of the other characters involved in this “win” are surrounded by sadness and regret. The winning jockey (Shanahan) is having an affair with the bug Leon, who is having trouble  making weight. The couple say nothing about it, but the issue hangs in the air.

The agent is not happy because a win means his rider (Gary Stevens) is less likely to get the mount after his collarbone heals.

Joey (the bug’s agent) is distraught and goes off at the bar. The bartender lets him rant. Stevens is on a bender and the bug can’t make the weight.

Escalante looks at the bug through his binoculars and says, “Is he gaining weight?”

“The bug?” Joey says.

“No, that Mormon girl who used to sing with her brothers.”

Joey vigorously defends his jockey, but he knows the truth, that he is having trouble making the weight.

Ace and Mike: The Long Awaited Meeting

Since the very first moments of Luck, we have been waiting for the confrontation between Ace and Mike, the mysterious character who we are led to believe is responsible for sending Ace to prison.

After meeting Claire, Bernstein and Mike (Michael Gambon), meet up aboard Mike’s yacht. Gambon, known for his role as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies, is nothing like that character here.

After the pleasantries are put aside, the two heavyweights get down to business.  The dialogue is about this and that, and ostensibly about whether Mike “wants a piece” of the casino deal Ace is putting together. In reality, however, this is a scene about retribution and the price Ace is willing to pay for revenge.

Mike knows all is not right.

“How [about] I still call you Chester?

“Go ahead.”

“Too tawdry,” Mike says.  “Pretend we can get back to that.  I’ll call you Ace now. Like everyone else.”

Think about that dialogue.  What in god’s name are they talking about?

“Was wondering if you are arranging some fun at the expense of some erstwhile colleagues,” Mike says, trying to get at Ace’s real motives.

“No,” Ace says.

“Even Jesus Christ of Nazareth was tempted to anger, Ace….” Mike says.

“That’s not the way I operate,” Ace says.

“No sweat, Ace Bernstein, unlike Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

“You prick…how do you know I didn’t sweat?” Bernstein explodes.

This is what the scene has been leading up to—forget the yacht, the casino deal, the women that Mike offers to Ace like hors d’oevures.

This episode is directed by Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Salt).

David Milch and Writing Scenes

The story I have read about how Milch writes his scenes is unusual.  He does not type his ideas into a computer. According to a story in the New Yorker, Milch wrote scenes each morning for Deadwood while lying on the floor, talking to a screen, while others transcribed what he said into the computer. According to the article, to type into a computer would create  “opportunities for obsessive-compulsive distraction.”

More from the New Yorker article: Last spring and summer, as the first season’s episodes were being aired, Milch convened the writers and interns for several weeks to explore how characters, themes, and story lines might evolve, and the transcriptions of those sessions totalled hundreds of single-spaced pages. “We want to integrate the individual story lines into the over-all emotional atmosphere,” he said at one point. “The first season is about the individuals improvising their way to some sort of primitive structure. . . . There’s a provisional sense of promise.” In the second season, he suggested, “what ought to haunt the atmosphere is that the gold may have dried up. . . . What you want every character to be looking at is ‘What’s the worst-case scenario? What’s the disaster scenario? They sink the shafts and there’s nothing there.’ ” Milch has a prodigious memory, which means that these densely layered observations are at the disposal of his consciousness, as well as his unconscious, when he finally sits down, or lies down, to write. After witnessing this process on several occasions—the ambience in the room seems equal parts master class and séance—the comparison that strikes me as most apt is channelling. The only sounds are the hum of an air-conditioner and Milch’s voice, or, more precisely, the voices of his characters speaking through him.

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The Best Movie Scene Ever (Dialogue from True Romance, by Quentin Tarentino)

Coccotti: You know who I am, Mr. Worley?

Clifford: I give up. Who are you?

Coccotti: I’m the Anti-Christ. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood. You tell the angels in heaven you never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you. My name is Vincent Coccotti. I work as counsel for Mr. Blue Lou Boyle, the man your son stole from. I hear you were once a cop so I can assume you’ve heard of us before. Am I correct?

Clifford: I heard of Blue Lou Boyle.

Coccotti: I’m glad. Hopefully it means we can cut out the part of the conversation where you’re wondering how full of shit I am.

Clifford: I haven’t seen Clarence.

Coccotti: You see that? [Holding a clenched fist, then striking Clifford] That smarts, doesn’t it? Getting slammed in the nose. Fucks you all up. You get that pain shootin’ through your brain, your eyes fill up with water. That ain’t any kind of fun, but what I have to offer you, that’s as good as it’s gonna get. And it won’t ever get that good again. We talked to your neighbors. They saw a Cadillac. Purple Cadillac. Clarence’s purple Cadillac, parked in front of your trailer yesterday. Mr. Worley, you seen your son?

Clifford: Now, wait a minute and listen. I haven’t seen Clarence in three years. Yesterday he shows up here with a girl, sayin’ he got married. He told me he needed some quick cash for a honeymoon, so he asked if he could borrow five hundred dollars. I wanted to help him out so I wrote out a check. We went to breakfast and that’s the last I saw of him. So help me God. They never thought to tell me where they were goin’. And I never thought to ask.

Coccotti: Sicilians are great liars. The best in the world. I’m Sicilian. My father was the world heavyweight champion of Sicilian liars. Growin’ up with him I learned the pantomime. There are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give him away. A guy’s got seventeen pantomimes. A woman’s got twenty, but a guy’s got seventeen. And if you know ‘em like ya know your own face, they beat lie detectors to hell. Now, what we got here is a little game of show and tell. You don’t wanna show me nothin’. But you’re tellin’ me everything. Now I know you know where they are. So tell me, before I do some damage you won’t walk away from.

Clifford: Could I have one of those Chesterfields now?

Coccotti: Sure.

Clifford: Got a match? Oh, don’t bother. I got one.

Coccotti: …your son, the cowboy, and his flame, came in the room blazin’, and didn’t stop ’till they were pretty sure everybody was dead.

Clifford: What are you talkin’ about?

Coccotti: Talkin’ about a massacre. They snatched my narcotics, hightailed it outta there. Woulda got away with it, but your son, fuckhead that he is, left his driver’s license in the dead guy’s hand.

Clifford: You know, I don’t believe you.

Coccotti: That’s of minor importance. What is of major fucking importance is that I believe you.

Clifford: You’re Sicilian, huh?

Coccotti: Yeah, Sicilian.

Clifford: You know, I read a lot. Especially about things that have to do with history. I find that shit fascinating. Here’s a fact, I don’t know if you know or not, Sicilians were spawned by niggers.

Coccotti: Come again?

Clifford: It’s a fact. You see, Sicilians have black blood pumpin’ through their hearts. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, you see, the Moors conquered Sicily. And Moors are niggers.

Coccotti: Yes…

Clifford: So you see, way back then, uh, Sicilians were like, uh, wops from Northern Italy. Ah, they all had blonde hair and blue eyes, but, uh, well, then the Moors moved in there, and uh, well, they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin’ with Sicilian women, huh? That they changed the whole bloodline forever. That’s why blonde hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin. You know, it’s absolutely amazing to me to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that, uh, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene. Now this…

[Coccotti laughs]

Clifford: No, I’m, no, I’m quoting… history. It’s written. It’s a fact, it’s written.

Coccotti: [laughing] I love this guy.

Clifford: Your ancestors are niggers. Uh-huh. Hey. Yeah. And, and your great-great-great-great grandmother fucked a nigger, ho, ho, yeah, and she had a half-nigger kid… now, if that’s a fact, tell me, am I lying? ‘Cause you, you’re part eggplant.

Coccotti: Ohhh!

Clifford: Huh? Hey! Hey! Hey!

Coccotti: You’re a cantaloupe. [shoots Cliff in the face]

Quentin Turantino on Dialoge [excerpt from the Quentin Turentino Archives]

CS: How exactly have Elmore Leonard’s books influenced your writing style?
QT: Well, when I was a kid and I first started reading his novels I got really caught up in his characters and the way they talked. As I started reading more and more of his novels it kind of gave me permission to go my way with characters talking around things as opposed to talking about them. He showed me that characters can go off on tangents and those tangents are just as valid as anything else. Like the way real people talk. I think his biggest influence on any of my things was True Romance. Actually, in TRUE ROMANCE I was trying to do my version of an Elmore Leonard novel in script form. I didn’t rip it off, there’s nothing blatant about it, it’s just a feeling you know, and a style I was inspired by more than anything you could point your finger at.
CS: The strongest scene in TRUE ROMANCE is the confrontation between Cliff [played by Dennis Hopper] and Coccotti [played by Christopher Walken]. How did you approach crafting that scene?
QT: The way I write is really like putting one foot in front of the other. I really let the characters do most of the work, they start talking and they just lead the way. I had heard that whole speech about the Sicilians a long time ago, from a black guy living in my house. One day I was talking with a friend who was Sicilian and I just started telling that speech. And I thought, “Wow, that is a great scene, I gotta remember that.” In True Romance the one thing I knew Cliff had to do was insult the guy enough that he’d kill him, because if he got tortured he’d end up telling him where Clarence was, and he didn’t want to do that. I knew how the scene had to end, but I don’t write dialogue in a strategic way. I didn’t really go about crafting the scene, I just put them in the room together. I knew Cliff was going to end up doing the Sicilian thing but I didn’t know what Coccotti was going to say. They just started talking and I jotted it down. I almost feel like a fraud for taking credit for writing dialogue, because it’s the characters that are doing it. To me it’s very connected to actors’ improv with me playing all the characters. One of the reasons I like to write with pen and paper is it helps that process, for me anyway.

Read a Review of Episode 3

Read a Review of Episode 2

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