ABE & PHIL’S LAST POKER GAME: Rest In Greatness, Martin Landau
[Published at Film Inquiry] The late, great Martin Landau’s final film, Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game, is a fitting showcase for the iconic, Oscar-winning (Ed Wood) actor. Written and directed by Howard L. Weiner in his feature film debut, the film tells the story of Dr. Abe Mandelbaum, who, after moving into a nursing home, befriends a gambling addict and former Don Juan, Phil Nicoletti (Paul Sorvino in his finest performance in years, perhaps ever). When a young nurse, Angela (Maria Dizzia), begins working at the nursing home based on an anonymous tip that her biological father lives there, Abe and Phil’s friendship gets pushed to its limits.
Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game has its narrative flaws, and, at times, doesn’t quite find the right balance between drama, comedy, and tragedy, but it moves along at a consistent pace, entertains, and provides its audience with plenty of philosophical, emotional, and comedic depth to pass as an auspicious debut for Weiner.
Though it’s overtly predictable as it enters the second act, it’s a pleasure watching Dizzia go toe-to-toe with Hollywood heavyweights Landau and Sorvino. Dizzia has built an envious filmography of supporting roles, but she gets a chance to flex her acting chops more than she ever has before in Weiner’s film. As for Landau, it is, without a doubt, his most virtuoso performance since his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.
Weiner’s Distinct Style
Due to the theme of old age and bodily and mental deterioration in Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game, especially given Abe’s wife, Molly’s (Ann Marie Shea) senility, Weiner and cinematographer Terrance Hayes create a dreamlike, nostalgic feel to almost every frame of the film that evokes the feeling of fading memories or an old photograph. Cinephiles may notice this vignetting, almost blurring of the edges of the frame as a key technique developed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
This effect created in camera with lenses called “Deakinizers.” The makeshift process is as follows: essentially, one needs to take the front element off the lens that they’re using, or they could mount the glass of old wide-angle lenses to an Arri Macro, or, for a varying magnitude of the vignetting effect, different lenses. As Deakins claims, “Removing the front element makes the lens faster, and it also gives you this wonderful vignetting and slight color diffraction around the edges.”
In Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game, it would appear that Weiner and Hayes most likely removed the front element of their lens in certain scenes, as some of the pans and camera movements come off as jumpy and unpalatable. Furthermore, the scenery and setting of the film don’t exactly reinforce the consistent use of such a drastic camera effect. It is far more elegant looking in Deakins and Andrew Dominik’s Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Weiner’s use of it is not only redundant, but it’s quite heavy-handed and an obvious, less creative choice to visually express themes associated with aging.
Narratively, though Weiner’s tonal shifts aren’t always executed with finesse, the film succeeds more than it falters. The dialogue is well-written and realistic, and the characters of Abe and Phil are thoroughly developed. Weiner knows when to let the moments in between his scenes linger, his actors relish in their interactions and chemistry, and when to move his more uncomfortable scenes along without exhausting the viewer.
An Unlikely Bond
If someone had told me that Paul Sorvino and Martin Landau would make for an excellent onscreen duo before, even as catalysts for a budding bromance before this film was made, I would’ve laughed it off. In Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game, their chemistry is invigorating and magnetic.
By simply playing to their strengths as actors, Sorvino as a foul-mouthed, wise-cracking but loveable trouble-maker and Landau as an honest, assertive, endearing grandfather figure, their personalities offset and complement each other rather dulcetly. As the film progresses, it’s also a delight to see their personalities rub off on each other.
Together, Abe and Phill get into hilarious antics together, exploits, realistic arguments, and experience sincere and affecting late-stage life moments together. Both actors bring a necessary tenderness to their respective roles. If it weren’t for the duo’s performances, Weiner’s tonal shifts would have been completely off-the-mark. Sorvino has been drastically underutilized in the past decade. With Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game, he provides a range viewers haven’t seen before from him. Gone is the tough guy persona; it is replaced by an emotionally intelligent man.
As good as Sorvino is, it’s Landau’s show. He gives such an undemanding, nuanced turn, it feels as though each sentence he forms with his deep, nasally voice comes directly from his heart. The dialogue, given the subject matter of elderly friends embracing the inevitability of death, hits close to home both with him and the audience. Landau’s final on-screen moments are some of his best, and will leave most audience members in tears, or on the verge of; it is as genuine and unbridled as acting gets.
Dizzia is as natural as Landau and Sorvino are, and she rounds out a trio of thoughtfully conceived characters. Angela is longing for something more in life, a father, but in a larger, more cosmic sense, like Abe and Phil, a deeper meaning to life. Abe and Phill want the vitality of their younger selves back, but, more importantly, a biological legacy. They see Angela, in a sense, as their saving grace and the befriending of her as their final good deed in the short remainder of their lives.
Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game: A Must-See For The Performances
Somehow, Weiner, Landau, Sorvino, and Dizzia manage to make a film centered around death not depressing, but fittingly celebratory and surprisingly satisfying. Weiner’s story may unfold in a relatively uneven and potholed manner, and it ends rather abruptly, but there is far more to like than dislike in the director’s first effort.
Perhaps, were it not for his excessive use of the Deakinizer-like effect and Steven Argila’sschmaltzy, at times, far-too-exaggerated score, it would have been a better debut. Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game boasts a trio of fantastic performances, particularly from an emotionally far-reaching Sorvino and Landau in one of his finest turns in his final film, and contains just enough laughs and dramatic themes to overcome Weiner’s rookie missteps.
Whose performance did you enjoy more, Sorvino’s or Landau’s? Are you excited to see more from Weiner?
Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game opened to limited theatrical release and VOD on January 12, 2018 in the U.S. For all information on release dates, see here.