Tag Archives: superhero

How I became a superhero

30 May
Me at the UKIPT with my superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Me at the UKIPT, wearing my new superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Yesterday I became a superhero. Yes, with a superhero costume and a superpower and everything.

Let me explain how.

They say poker is all about probabilities and odds, and they are right, it is; but only up to a point. Live poker at least is more about masks and secret identities. In real life you might be a banker or a lawyer, a gangster or a millionaire, a cab driver or a student; but at the poker table you are whoever you choose to represent yourself as. It’s your job as a live player to see behind your opponents’ masks: to decide this person’s raise means AQ or better; that person’s raise includes low-to-medium pairs; that person’s includes any suited cards. The wider your own range, and the harder it is to read, the more formidable you are as a player.

That’s why nicknames in poker are so common: they are your opponents’ way of categorising what sort of a superhero (or super-villain) you are. I’ve had several given to me. Devilfish himself named me “No-Tells Wells” many years back. Since then I have been called the Professor, the Dom-inator, the Silent Assassin and Paul Smith (because of my sharp jackets), all facets of my different playing styles, my own inner superhero team of the poker felt.

And yesterday I was finally given an actual superhero costume to wear: the black, white and red arm-badge of a sponsored player for PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino, with a buy-in to the £275 two-day UKIPT tournament. It’s in that tournament that I discovered my superpower:

I can dodge bullets.

I had several unlucky hands early on that took me down from a 20k starting stack to just 4k, before I built it back up. Any one of them might have knocked out another player. Here’s how to survive in order to fight a better spot when the hand turns against you:

I flop a flush! But I don’t blow my stack.

I call a raise to 300 (BB is 100) with 6-8 of clubs. The blinds are tiny, I can afford a speculative hand I could chip up with. Baseball cap makes it 800, initial raiser calls with his pocket pair or high cards, I call too.

And the flop is all clubs, up to the 9.

Even better, baseball cap leads out 2k with his probable pocket over-pair. Initial raiser calls, either with a lower pocket pair, or a high club. I don’t want to slow-play and let one catch up with a high club if another club comes; so I play safe by raising to 6k, expecting folds. Baseball cap folds, the other guy calls. Hm. Strange. A high club, then?

The turn is a second 9. And the guy shoves all-in. Oh sh**. In a previous hand that was checked to the river, he’d been open-ended on the turn and didn’t raise. There is no way he is shoving all-in without the nuts. 100% he has a house. I don’t even dwell: I insta-fold, showing my flush. He shows pocket 2s for a set on the flop and a house on the turn.

7k down the drain already, but I could easily have been knocked out. Dodged a bullet there.

Finally a real hand! AK suited.

The flop is no help, sadly – 78Q – but there’s hardly any betting till the river so I stay in. Brilliant! The river brings an Ace: baseball cap shakes his head at it sadly.

My spider-senses tingle. He’s surely too experienced a player to let negative emotion show. Now I’m worried. The turn was a 4: could he have 56 for a straight? If I check, and he bets, I’ll feel I have to call even a pot-sized bet (now over 3k). Whereas if he checks, and really does have a lower pair as he’s pretending, I’ve lost money.

My best option therefore is to bet, but really small. I put in 1.5, less than half the pot. He sighs and shakes his head again. Then pushes in 7k. Ha! His blatant Hollywooding just made it easier for me. I fold, showing my AK to induce him to show in return, which he does: he did have a straight. Dodged another bullet there.

Pocket 10s

An easy bullet to dodge. Pocket 10s, A on flop, he bets, I fold. He shows the Ace, too.

Pocket 9s

A tricky one. I get pocket 9s. Despite winning or stealing a few small pots, including by repping a flush I don’t have when a fourth club comes, I’m down to 7k by this stage. There’s a raise to 600, but I’m in too early a position to go all-in, so I call to set-mine. Tight pro in glasses raises to 2k. Damn. That’s bad. AK perhaps, more probably a high pair. Initial raiser calls, though, so now I stand to triple up if I hit. It’s a big dent in my stack, but 1.4k to have an eighth chance of winning up to 21k is a good bet. I call.

The flop is as good as it could be, short of giving me a 9: 568, so I have an overpair and a gutshot. BUT glasses leads out 3k. I am certain now he has a high overpair, not AK. Even though the other guy calls, and I’m down to just 5k, I’m so sure of my read I fold. Glasses bets the turn of a 3, and the river of a 5, at which the other guy bows out, saying: “You got Kings?”

This makes him show: he does indeed have pocket Kings. Dodged another bullet there.

Double up!

Down to 5k. I’ve seen many players shove in desperation in those situations, but I’m still 20x BB. Doubling up is easy, I just need the right hand. I want a cigarette, but can’t afford to miss a single hand now, so I stay put. Good thing, too: I get pocket Qs. It’s an insta-all-in, hoping for one caller – which I get from BB with pocket 8s. Brilliant. I double up.

All-in

On this hand I do finally go all-in, inducing someone to fold the better hand:

I have AJ of spades in the BB. Three limps; I’m sure I have the highest hand, so I raise big, 1.5k on BB 300; big enough that I can rep an overpair if need be. One caller – it’s the guy who had a house on me before, the guy I folded a made flush to. That’s important for what follows:

The flop comes 9 high, with two spades. I don’t have to think too hard about my course of action. I’ve been cautious when need be: now is not the time for caution. I can’t check and call, or I may leak chips to the river. I can’t check-raise, as if I let him bet he’ll be committed to call at my stack size. I have to shove all-in to gain fold equity.

But first, I lay the groundwork for this particular superhero identity: the identity of a guy with a big over-pair. I look at him. He looks back at me quizzically. I can tell he’s got a little something – he’s either hit a pair on the board, or has a pocket pair. “Just trying to work out if you’ve hit a set again,” I say to him, as I look into his eyes. This reminds him that I’m the guy who was tight enough to lay down a flush. It also suggests that I have an overpair to the board.

Now I nod as though satisfied, and shove all-in. I’m pretty sure he’ll now fold any pair. And if he finds the balls to call, I still have my one-third chance of doubling up with the nut flush. He dwells, then folds, showing the 9 for top pair on the board. “Good fold,” I say, without showing. Dodged another bullet there, and now I’m back to a playable 12k.

Back in the game

I gradually build it back to 35k – average stack now it’s late in the day; not bad when I was down to 4k. Along the way, there’s a graphic reminder of what happens when you don’t even try to dodge bullets. A short-stack somehow ends up all-in with pocket deuces against a guy with AQ on a Q-high flop. As he leaves the table, he shrugs and says rhetorically, “What can you do?”

I have an answer for that. DON’T GO ALL-IN WITH DEUCES, YOU INCREDIBLE IDIOT. Another short-stack check-raises all-in when I hit my top pair on the flop. I have to put him on a flush draw, not two pair, or he’d have bet first, so I call. He had bottom pair, and goes out. Again, he just lost the will the find the right spot to fight.

A tight spot with AK

I have a strange hand with AK. I raise in the SB, and am called by the BB, a woman who’s recently been moved to my left. Flop is A-6-10, with two spades. Couldn’t be better. I bet 3k, and she shoves all-in for 11k. That’s bad. Very bad. Any other player I could put on a flush draw, or AJ or AQ. But I remember her from the last tournament. I think she’s stronger than that.

I dwell for ages. This is my one hand written up on the PokerStars blog, and it must seem strange that I dwelt so long after flopping an Ace with AK: surely an insta-call, when 8k stands to win me twice that, and it doesn’t even cripple my stack. But I know her enough to put her on A10 for two pair… maybe even a set. Finally, I make the call, and I’m relieved rather than disappointed when she has AK as well for a chop.

Going out fighting

In the end, I do go out after losing some key hands. It’s not because I stop being able to dodge bullets through my reads, but because I still lack the best super-power of all: the ability to hit.

For instance, I call an all-in button shove with A7 on the BB, knowing he has air: he has J5 – but somehow still gets a straight. Later I re-raise to 6k in late position with pocket 8s, but glasses re-re-raises to 16k: definitely a bigger pair, so I fold. I end up short-stacked again, and have to button-shove with K7 suited; called by pocket 8s; I don’t hit.

So I go out, nearly at the end of the day, in 45th place out of 119 runners. Disappointing, but not a bad result when at one stage I was down to just 4k within the first two hours. And I outlast another PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino pro at my table, who weirdly sat with his starting stack of 20k intact, not playing a single hand for two hours, then suddenly shoved all-in against a 1k raise. I say to myself, no one will possibly call him with anything less than Kings here, when this is the first hand he’s played since sitting down, and so it proves: the initial raiser calls him with Aces, he mournfully shows AK, and he’s out.

As a poker superhero, I’d rather die fighting.

I then take myself off upstairs to the PokerStars LIVE balcony, and positively crush the cash table until 3am.

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Why Birdman soars: the art of the 90-minute single take

14 Jan
Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman's deft exploration of truth through artifice

Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman’s deft exploration of truth through artifice

Saw Birdman with my son Sam last night, and it really is as extraordinary as they say. Every character, however small, is well delineated and has at least one great scene; Emma Stone is particularly brilliant, as so often.

But from a film buff’s point of view, the most exciting and head-scratching element is that it appears to be shot in one continuous 90-minute take, without a single cut. Ever since Orson Welles pulled off a wonderfully complex 3 min 20 sec tracking shot as the opening to Touch of Evil, directors have vied to outdo him. Gravity raised the bar last year, with Cuarón’s 17-minute opening shot made possible by digital technology. His fellow Mexican Iñárritu has now forever smashed that record with an entire film’s length. (Admittedly Russian Ark got there first, in 2002, but Birdman is filmed in a far more fluid and dynamic style.)

Fiendishly complex as it was to pull off, it is of course a digital trick, with the cuts hidden in digitally blended scenes when the camera pans to one side without a person in view. But beyond a “look ma, no hands!” desire to show off what can be done, why did Iñárritu decide to do this?

My son, who is perceptive when it comes to films, pointed out that Iñárritu’s trademark is the interlocking multiple narrative which was first displayed in Amores Perros, was developed in 21 Grams, and reached its apotheosis in Babel, which is set in four different countries in four different languages. Birdman’s single continuous take goes to the opposite extreme. Perhaps Iñárritu just wanted to do something different. He told Variety, ““It was like I was on a ladder, and I was getting a little too comfortable.”

But what is the technique’s impact on the film, its effect on the viewer? I noticed a weird thing. We are so used to the grammar of film, the cuts between characters and the sudden shifts in time and location, that they are no longer intrusive. In fact, to me, the definition of a great film is one where I lose myself within it completely, where I am no longer aware that I am watching a film but inhabit it completely, and 15 minutes or more can pass before I blink and remember that I am in a cinema at all. That’s why I always sit up close, in the third row, so I cannot see the edges of the screen.

So the long take in Birdman, which you would expect to feel more naturalistic than constant cuts, to me has the opposite effect. It is stylised, it reminds you continually of the artifice of film. The performances, as befits a comedy that is not quite a comedy, are somewhat stylised, too.

And this perfectly suits the theme of the film. On one level it is the story of a mid-life crisis, of a man who is famous for doing something he does not value (grossing billions of dollars 20 years previously in a superhero franchise) trying to achieve self-worth through putting on a “serious” play based on a story by Raymond Carver.

But it is also about the power of dreams, and the nature of truth, and the thin line between reality and fantasy, and how each can inform the other. That the superhero its protagonist used to play is Birdman, whose superpower is flight, is no accident. Nor is it that Iñárritu has cast in this role an actor, Michael Keaton, who himself is burdened with the fame of playing a superhero – Batman – in a blockbuster franchise. That Keaton is putting on a play within the film allows Iñárritu to explore notions of truth and artifice: Edward Norton’s character is a charming and manipulative bastard who can only “be real” when he is acting, on stage. He even tries to have sex with his girlfriend for real in the play’s bed scene, because it is only on stage, in character, that he has managed to get it up in the last six months.

When Keaton stands on a roof ledge, increasingly drawn into his schizophrenic fantasy that he really is Birdman, a woman shouts out: “Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?” “A film!” he says. “You people are full of shit,” she shouts back. His Birdman alter-ego, who whispers in his ear, tells him to make another blockbuster: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Which, of course, is the kind of film Iñárritu has just made, though smuggled into the multiplexes under the guise of a film about a superannuated superhero, including a gigantic fantasy scene three quarters of the way through of SWAT teams and exploding helicopters and a giant robot bird-villain so it can have its cake and eat it: criticising blockbusters while at the same time benefiting from the action scene’s trailer value.

The result is an intensively artificial film which, through artifice, gets closer to exploring truth and the nature of reality than perhaps any this year. Birdman is also funny, and touching, and something of a masterpiece. Go see.

Get On Up: James Brown’s got a brand-new movie bag

20 Nov
Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown through the Get On Up shoot

Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown throughout the Get On Up shoot

Another week, another musical biopic: hot on the Cuban heels of the Hendrix biopic comes James Brown, the trouser-splitting Godfather of Soul. Hollywood seems to love the genre. Stars thus immortalised include Elvis, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Liberace, Ian Curtis, Sid Vicious, the Jersey Boys, Bob Dylan, Notorious B.I.G., Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. Projects in development include Janis Joplin (already played in fictionalised form by Bette Midler in The Rose), Elvis again (by Baz Luhrmann), Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury (with Sasha Baron Cohen no longer attached).

Why so? They arrive with existing “brand equity”, ie a previously recognisable name, saving a fortune in marketing. Stars love them: it’s a chance not just to slip into someone else’s skin, but show off their singing and dancing, too. Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash) and Angela Bassett (Tina Turner) were both Oscar-nom’d; Jamie Foxx won as Ray Charles. And these biopics all come with a ready-made arc, the same one as in sporting movies such as Rocky or Raging Bull: youngster triumphs over adversity to find success; throws it away again, along with their friends, through the pressures of fame and the ravages of drug abuse; and eventually (though occasionally real life conspires against this ending) finds redemption.

But that’s also the great problem with them: they are familiar and predictable; the ending is known. So kudos to Get On Up, the James Brown biopic that opens in the UK tomorrow, for at least attempting something different.

As scripted by the brothers Butterworth, Jez and John-Henry, the time periods leap all over the place: Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing with parents who both abandoned him; his time in jail; his trip to play to the troops in ‘Nam; the rampant narcissism that alienates his band; his troubles with the tax man. We slip back and forth more bewilderingly than Mathew McConaughey inside a black hole, with only ever-changing hairstyles to guide us.

Though I applaud the ambition, I can’t say it’s totally successful. The lack of a clear narrative arc, together with Brown’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, are disengaging. It would take an auteurial vision on the part of the director stronger than Tate Taylor can manage – a Nic Roeg, say – to pull this time-shifting off. The whole thing feels rather stagey, not surprisingly given the Butterworths’ origins as playwrights. The lighting and cinematography are more TV than movie, and there are a few too many lines that play to the gallery: “Don’t tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky”, he tells an officer in ‘Nam who tries to cut his show short; and when his plane gets shot at, “Do you want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

Get On Up is always watchable and occasionally thrilling, however, both for the music and the extraordinary central performance by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman. He sings, he dances, he does the splits; at one stage during production he had to play a teenaged Brown in jail in the morning, and switch to Brown in his sixties on the same afternoon. He kept in character throughout the shoot. To me, Boseman never quite goes beyond impersonation and into inhabitation of the character – Dan Ackroyd as his kindly manager gives more of a sense of an inner life behind the eyes – but it is an astonishing tour de force. He’s destined for blockbuster fame as the Black Panther in Marvel’s superhero flick, slated for November 2017.

Video

The Presence LDN: a Cosplay post-punk rockapocalypse

5 Jul

Sometimes, a critic must set subjective judgement aside, and just say: this is TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME!

The video above, released just today, is one such time. It’s a compilation of Cosplay footage that will get any comic-book fan pressing the Replay button again and again, set to a two-minute hit-seeking missile of a song. It’s put together by the frontman of new band The Presence LDN, a man who seemingly now wants to be known as just “SWP”, though my personal nickname for him is “Occult Steve” due to his habit of… how else can I put it… materialising in unexpected places.

A former horror film director and composer whom I first met thanks to omniscient film critic Kim Newman, SWP has since manifested at three club events I attended as well as a Shoreditch street corner. Usually while I was thinking of him.

Ageless under a shock of white hair, resembling a much handsomer brother of Johnny Rotten (indeed, former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock played bass in his last band, King Mob), SWP and The Presence have even been immortalised on their website by cult comic artist Shaky Kane…

As I say, totally freaking awesome.

‘Like’ the band on Facebook here: http://on.fb.me/17SpmDo