Friday, January 27, 2012

 

I'd rather be lucky than smart


By Edward Copeland
More than two years after it was announced that Michael Mann would direct the pilot for a possible new HBO series written by Deadwood mastermind David Milch and starring two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Rain Man) and three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides, Affliction, Warrior), that series — Luck — makes its official debut Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m. EST/PST, 8 p.m. CST. The premiere episode of Luck's nine-episode inaugural season actually debuted in December following the second season finale of Boardwalk Empire. Mann and Milch both serve as two of the series’ executive producers and Hoffman bears the title of producer as well. Thanks to my good friends of HBO, I've seen all nine episodes of Luck and will be able to post full-fledged recaps the moment each episode has finished airing. For now, I offer this brief, spoiler-free preview of the series that I've found to be a nice addition to the HBO family of dramas. Having that unmistakable rhythm of Milchian language resonating in my ears again certainly pleases me. On top of that, Luck captures the excitement of horse racing, particularly in a Mann-directed/Milch-written sequence in the premiere, like nothing I've seen before. As someone who enjoyed going to the track (even being clueless as far as handicapping horses goes), watching Luck made me miss being able to go. With only its brief run of nine episodes as a barometer, the show's forecast looks good with its future chance at greatness hovering around 75%. Luck isn't there yet. It's no Deadwood — but few things are. More importantly, it's no John From Cincinnati either. As I write this, the first two episodes are the only installments I've watched more than once but, unless I missed others, viewers will get through all nine episodes with only two utterances of cocksucker.


What makes that racing sequence in the Luck premiere mimic the experience of a real race parallels the premise of this new drama. The race gets shown from the various perspectives of those involved in horse racing and Luck tells those sides outside of race scenes as well. Its large cast encompasses owners, trainers, jockeys at different points in their careers, jockeys' agents, track veterinarians and the serious gamblers — and those just include regulars. The world David Milch has created also will cross paths with other track officials and employees. In their own ways, the horses develop distinct personalities as well. While scenes occur away from the fictionalized Santa Anita Park that serves as the focal point of the series, all stories lead back there in some way. As for that race sequence, much of the credit for it has to fall to Michael Mann's direction and the editing team of Michael Brown, Hank Corwin and Kelley Dixon. The cutting of that race should earn the pilot next year's Emmy in that category now.

Mann steered two of the '80s most influential crime dramas to the airwaves — Miami Vice and Crime Story — though he hasn't produced for television since the short-lived Robbery Homicide Division in the 2002-2003 season and he last directed for TV when he helmed the 1989 telefilm L.A. Takedown. It's not that Mann has been loafing — he's directed and/or produced several feature films including Heat, The Insider, Ali, The Aviator and Hancock. The Insider brought Mann three Oscar nominations for producing, directing and co-writing the film. He also was nominated for producing The Aviator.

Milch created Luck, which marks his first new work to air since John From Cincinnati. He wrote a pilot for a series called Last of the Ninth in 2009, but no one picked it up. Milch forever holds a place in the hearts of quality television fans as the maestro behind the prematurely ended Deadwood, whose two two-hour wrap-up movies never came to be. Milch has received an astounding 24 Emmy nominations for writing or producing for Deadwood, Hill Street Blues, Murder One and NYPD Blue. He won four Emmys, two for writing NYPD Blue episodes and one as a producer of that series when it won outstanding drama. He earned his fourth Emmy (actually his first) for writing a Hill Street Blues episode.

In addition to Mann and Milch serving as executive producers and Hoffman as producer, Luck's behind-the-scenes producing team also includes Carolyn Strauss (Game of Thrones, Treme) as executive producer; Henry J. Brochtein (The Sopranos, where he also directed) as co-executive producer; and Eric Roth (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump and Oscar-nominated writer of The Insider, Munich and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as co-executive producer.

Hoffman is the series' ostensible lead, though Luck boasts 13 regulars in its opening credits who all get screen time as well as many recurring characters. In fact, in the premiere, some of the other character get more scenes than Hoffman's character, Chester "Ace" Bernstein. We meet Bernstein first as he leaves federal prison after serving three years. The audience won't learn why Ace, a wealthy man who has spent his life operating around gambling enterprises and organized crime, ended up incarcerated in the first episode other than the fact he took the fall for other people. While imprisoned, he spent $2 million to buy an Irish race horse, using his faithful driver/bodyguard Gus "The Greek" Demitriou (Dennis Farina, star of Mann's Crime Story) as a front, acting as the thoroughbred's owner. One of Luck's strongest assets proves to be that chemistry between Hoffman and Farina, especially in the duo's late-night bull sessions in the hotel suite that Bernstein calls home. They board the horse, named Pint of Plain, at Santa Anita, the race track located in Arcadia, Calif., about 14 miles northeast of downtown L.A. Bernstein's motivation for picking Santa Anita turns out to have two purposes. The first figures in with long-term plans he's had to purchase the track and add casino gambling while getting even with some of his shady business associates, played by guest star Alan Rosenberg in the premiere who's joined in later episodes by Ted Levine and Sir Michael Gambon, returning to a character closer to his Thief in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover than Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. The second reason resides closer to Ace's heart. Santa Anita serves as the home track for a talented and temperamental Peruvian-born trainer, Turo Escalante (John Ortiz).

In my eyes, Escalante — and Ortiz — could prove to be the breakout character and actor on Luck. Ortiz's name may not be as recognizable as Hoffman, Nolte or even Farina, but he's worked with some big name American directors since making his film debut in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way in 1993. He also appeared in Ron Howard's Ransom, Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Ridley Scott's American Gangster. Luck's premiere doesn't mark Ortiz's first time being directed by Mann either — he acted in the 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice as well as Public Enemies. Ortiz also executive produced and repeated his stage role in Philip Seymour Hoffman's directing debut, Jack Goes Boating. The play originated as an off-Broadway production by the theater troupe LAByrinth, where Ortiz served as co-artistic director. It's impressive, but if Luck succeeds, Turo Escalante will be the vehicle that launches Ortiz's career to the next level. Not only does Ortiz give a phenomenal performance, but Escalante, by far, shows himself to be the most fascinating part of the series as well as the character that interacts with more of the other players than anyone else, including the track's head veterinarian Jo Carter (Jill Hennessy), who turns out to be Turo's secret girlfriend. As with everything created and written by David Milch, he implies key things as much as he verbalizes them. Viewers will get the distinct impression that Escalante may be covered in infinite layers that could be peeled and examined in future seasons. In the meantime, Turo will be there, lashing out at jockeys for not following his instructions on how to run a horse during a race — even if the horse won anyway or acting as if he's a polite servant to a new horse's owner. Ortiz, as the best performers on a Milch show must know how to do, is as adept at making Escalante funny as frightening and even touching when needed.

Nick Nolte, whose stardom took flight on television in the 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, returns to the medium for the first time since for Luck — just days after receiving his third Oscar nomination (his first as a supporting actor) in Warrior. As Walter Smith, the grizzled veteran horse trainer-turned-owner from Kentucky, Nolte's role on Luck plays as a supporting one as well. In fact, he's absent from one of the nine episodes. Called "The Old Man" by many at the track, Smith shares something in common with Ace Bernstein: the first episode plants seeds of a mystery surrounding his story. In Walter's case, it has nothing to do with a prison sentence, but questions concerning the origin of his "big horse," Gettn'up Morning, that will be resolved rather quickly though the issue will hover over Smith and Gettn'up Morning through the show's short season. Walter also has an important decision to make about the horse — picking the jockey who will ride Gettn'up Morning once he's ready. The two main contenders are his exercise girl, Irish lass Rosie Shanahan (Kerry Condon), who longs to be a jockey, and Ronnie Jenkins (real-life National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens), who used to be a great but has moved into a universe of drink and drugs. Condon should be familiar to longtime viewers of HBO dramas from her role as Octavia on Rome or to moviegoers as Tolstoy's daughter in The Last Station. While acting isn't Stevens' first career, Luck isn't his first role. He played the famous 1930s and '40s jockey George Woolf (who happened to be based out of Santa Anita) in Seabiscuit.

Trying to keep Ronnie Jenkins sober and secure him the mount on Gettn'up Morning is his stuttering agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) who also represents an apprentice jockey at the track, Leon Micheaux (Tom Payne), also known as Bug, the name given to most beginning jockeys because the asterisk by their names in racing forms resembles an insect. Joey's career as an agent isn't going well and we get hints that his personal life has crumbled into disarray as well. Leon hails from Louisiana and has problems maintaining the weight he needs to qualify for races. He also doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut — so he manages to keep pissing off Escalante, much to Joey's annoyance. Leon also has a mutual attraction with a certain red-haired girl — who may become a professional competitor down the road. Kind's a familiar face from film and television including his regular role on Spin City, his recurring role as Larry's cousin Andy on Curb Your Enthusiasm and as troubled Uncle Arthur in the Coens' great A Serious Man. Leon may be from Louisiana but Payne hails from England and most of his credits so far come from British TV. Payne's best-known work in the U.S. may be the film Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

The final quartet of regulars belongs to a syndicate, but it's not the kind of syndicate that's crossing your mind. It's just the name given to a group of serious gamblers who pool their money so they can make bigger bets that cover more options and, hopefully, reap big benefits such as the more than $2 million payout that would go to someone lucky enough to correctly handicap the races involved in the Pick Six contest in Luck's premiere. The four men make for a colorful group, to say the least. The unofficial ringleader, Marcus Becker (Kevin Dunn), suffers from a variety of health conditions that force him to use a wheelchair and take frequent hits of oxygen from the tank attached to it. He's rude to everyone and seems as if he were born in a cranky mood. The true brain of the group belongs to Jerry Boyle (Jason Gedrick), who possesses a true gift for picking the right horses. Unfortunately, he likes to gamble all the time so anything he wins at the track he's liable to lose that night playing poker at a casino — and when Jerry gets tapped out, he becomes easy prey for a track security guard (Peter Appel), who works as a loan shark on the side. Marcus calls Jerry a degenerate, but the two of them have a special relationship that's almost like a father and son or two close brothers. The other two members of the group truly are misfits and you have to wonder how Marcus has let them hang around. The first is Renzo Calagari (Ritchie Coster), who lives on disability checks that he takes straight to the track. The newest member that Renzo has recruited is Lonnie McHinery (Ian Hart), a man who never gets the point of what's going on and has stumbled upon a bankroll supposedly from two women who are paying him to be their personal gigolo. Dunn has been a familiar face in lots of movies and TV shows since the mid-1980s. Even though he didn't have any scenes with Nolte, he also appeared in Warrior. Gedrick has appeared in a lot of television series either as a guest or in shows that didn't last long. He was the murder defendant in the first season of Murder One and one of the police officers in Boomtown, the NBC series that started out great until they mucked with its premise and destroyed it. Coster and Hart, like Payne, are Englishmen playing Americans. Name any crime procedural on TV and Coster has more than likely played a role on it. On the big screen, his films include Let Me In, The Dark Knight and American Gangster. Early in his career, Hart took on the role of John Lennon in two films in a row: The Hours and the Times and Backbeat. He's also made four films with director Neil Jordan including The End of the Affair, where Hart was especially good as a private detective with problems of his own.

Even with such a short season, Luck — already full of award winners and nominees in front of and behind the camera — attracted even more for recurring guest roles including Oscar nominees Joan Allen and Bruce Davison and Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl. There's also guest appearances by Barry Shabaka Henley, Jurgen Prochnow and W. Earl Brown (Deadwood's Dan Dority).

When the credits roll for the first time on Luck, in case you don't recognize the song playing beneath the images and artists' names, it's a trimmed version of "Splitting the Atom" by Massive Attack. Below are the lyrics, the show uses. Click here and you can see the video on YouTube for the complete song. Every listing of the lyrics (including the captions) insists that the band sings "eternited leave." I find no evidence of such a word as "eternited" and almost changed it automatically to eternal, assuming it was a misprint but apparently songwriters Robert Del Naja and Damon Albarn invented a word for their song.

The baby was born, nettles and ferns
The evening it chokes, the candle, it burns
This disguise covers bitter lies
Repeating the joke, the meaning it dies

It's easy, don't let it go
Don't lose it

The bankers have bailed, the mighty retreat
The pleasure it fails at the end of the week
You take it or leave or what you receive
To what you receive is eternited leave

It's easy, don't let it go
It's easy, don't let it go
It's easy, don't let it go
Don't lose it

As readers who have followed any of my previous series recaps know, my format has evolved. The first show I covered was the great fourth season of The Wire, but I basically just regurgitated what happened with a little criticism tossed in. I didn't go crazy and learn all I could about Baltimore.

My recaps for the first seasons of Treme and Boardwalk Empire pretty much followed the same pattern until I noted historical moments on Boardwalk Empire I suspected casual viewers wouldn't get, so I added explanatory links. For the second season of Treme, I started seeking explanations to references that I didn't get and each recap became like a puzzle, adding the context of real New Orleans events, info on the music — I even began to learn the geography of that city without ever having been there. When the second season of Boardwalk Empire premiered, I beefed up those recaps as well, not only on historical points and characters but even the origins of words and phrases.

Now, I start the nine-episode run of Luck. The recaps will evolve as I write them, but I suspect that if you didn't know the ins and outs of horse racing and betting before the show premiered and parts of the series leave you in the dark, I'll do my best to help fill in those gaps as I learn as well. The first recap ended up in two parts, but that had to do with exposition I believe. I do have to say it's probably a good thing that AMC didn't think me worthy enough to receive Breaking Bad screeners or I probably would know how to make crystal meth.

Luck premieres on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m. EST/PST, 8 p.m. CST with each of the subsequent eight episodes in the nine-episode first season airing at the same time.

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Comments:
I'm really looking forward to this one, Edward. I've seen the pilot episode three times now, and to me it feels like vintage Milch. I will admit that I may have been one of the only few to really enjoy the elusive nature of John From Cincinnati (especially Ed O'Neil's performance...damn I wish that show had gotten a second season).

I'm looking forward to how Luck will use the pros Hoffman, Farina, and Nolte (they all weren't really given much to do in the pilot), and I really liked Ortiz and Kevin Dunn and his lackeys (Dunn specifically, who seems quintessentially Milchian and right at home with his verse)

So, are they replaying the pilot this weekend, or is the second episode?

I can't wait!
 
This is the first episode, the one they showed the "sneak preview" of in December. Dunn does do well with the Milch verse and so does Farina. Having seen all nine, as I wrote, Ortiz may be my favorite. Though he's only a guest star, Gambon's great when he turns up.
 
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