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A.W. Vidmer
Michael Imperioli, Renee Faia, Michael Nouri, Joe La Due, Steve Schirripa, Todd Susman, Peggy Walton-Walker, Pat Morita, Jonathan Press
Writing Credits:
A.W. Vidmer

Gambler. Addict. Loser. Legend.

Based on a true story, High Roller is a hard-edged drama about legendary card prodigy Stu Ungar, one of the youngest players ever to win Las Vegas' World Series of Poker and to become a three-time champion.

Stu (Emmy award-winner Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos) had a meteoric rise through the back-room card parlors of New York City to the glamorous casinos of Las Vegas. A life of promise, though, was quickly wasted by an endless struggle with internal demons. His greed and obsession would ultimately pave the way to a stunning downward spiral into drugs, womanizing and high stakes gambling.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
English Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 110 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 3/15/2005

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Director AW Vidmer, Actors Michael Imperioli and Renee Faia, and Poker Expert Vince Van Patten
• Music Video
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 11, 2005)

Out of nowhere, professional poker has exploded over the last few years. That doesn’t sound like a subject likely to turn into riveting television, but obviously lots of people disagree, as poker tournaments now appear all over the airwaves.

It was only a matter of time before the subject turned into features. Actually, that’s already been done, since 1998’s Rounders was a few years ahead of the curve. That was a fictional tale, however, while 2004’s High Roller takes a look at a real figure.

Subtitled “The Stu Ungar Story”, Roller quickly introduces us to poker legend (Michael Imperioli) as some thug (Michael Pasternak) threatens him. We then launch into flashbacks as Ungar tells his life story. We start with Ungar as a 13-year-old (Jonathan Press) in 1966 and see his precocious talent with cards. We also see his relationship with this father Max (Todd Susman) and the often fancy underworld-related life they led.

Stu offends his father when he blows his bar mitzvah money at the track, and the elder Ungar forbids Stu to ever gamble again. However, gangster Vincent (Michael Nouri) fixes things so the kid can stay in the game. More problems arise when Max abruptly dies, and Stu quits school to pursue more profitable means.

From there the flick hops to 1973 and we see Stu in the midst of consistent gambling-related debt problems. He runs into problems because he doesn’t know when to quit. Vincent acts like a father figure and he takes Stu to task for his indiscretions and arrogance.

Another thread launches when Stu meets waitress Angela (Renee Faia) at a restaurant. They hit it off, but threats remain due to Stu’s debts. Vincent can protect him to a degree, but Stu seems likely to run into real trouble at some point.

“Some point” happens soon, and Vincent sends Stu to Las Vegas to try and win $100,000 in a gin tournament. He does so and then decides to abandon Angela and his old life to stay in Vegas and play cards. The movie hops ahead to 1980 and checks in with him then. The rest of the story follows his card-playing career, his personal life, and other issues.

Imperioli played a small part in GoodFellas. I get the feeling that’s why he ended up here; director AW Vidner clearly aspires to the Scorsese style, so why not use some of the same actors?

Unfortunately, slick camerawork and lots of musical montages don’t make you the next coming of Marty. Vidner keeps things relentlessly superficial in this glossy, uninvolving piece. The problems start at the very beginning. The framework in which Ungar tells his life story to the thug seems awfully cheesy and tired, and it doesn’t launch the movie in a provocative manner.

Matters don’t improve from there. Much of the drama seen during young Stu’s life seems awkward and tough to believe; the matters play out in a manner that makes them come across as less than realistic. The broad, stilted performance by young Jonathan Press doesn’t help, as the kid telegraphs every line and emotion. At least Imperioli does a decent job as the adult Stu. He relies a little too much on cartoony mannerisms and vocal affectations, but he manages to manifest the character’s cockiness and arrogance well.

Too bad that the movie never gives Imperioli an opportunity to delve much deeper. The production lacks insight. It glosses over personality facets and fails to dig inside the character. We never get a sense for what makes Stu tick, as the flick develops him in a jerky, unrealistic manner. One minute he lives the American dream, while the next he turns into a cokehead. The movie gives us no hint why he turned out the way he did.

Instead, Vidner prefers to soap up everything with musical montage after musical montage. The quality of the music doesn’t help, as we get anonymous pop/rock songs that sound an awful lot like more famous pop/rock songs. Why not use the real thing? Because the knock-offs are cheaper, of course.

That sense of chintziness infects High Roller. It doesn’t even try to get the production design right. We get a movie set in the Seventies with cars that look like they’re from the Fifties and people who mostly dress in a modern manner. (The principals wear period-correct garb, but not the extras.) All of these highlight why High Roller craps out.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B-/ Bonus C

High Roller appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite some rough moments, the transfer usually looked fairly good.

Sharpness varied but improved as the movie progressed. During the first half, some shots came across as a bit soft and ill-defined. These tendencies never became overwhelming; the images just looked a little off, and the movie became more distinctive as it progressed. No issues with jagged edges occurred, but I saw some minor shimmering, and I also noticed moderate edge enhancement at times. As for print flaws, grain looked a bit heavier than I’d expect, and I also detected periodic specks and marks. As with everything else, those diminished as the flick continued, and they were more frequent during the first half.

Given the fact that much of Roller took place in the gaudy confines of Vegas, I expected a lively palette, and the movie usually delivered. Across the board, colors were nicely bright and vivid. The tones always seemed vibrant and concise. Blacks occasionally seemed a little inky, but they usually presented reasonable depth. Low-light shots could be a but on the dense side, but they also usually demonstrated good opacity. After the flick’s first half, I was leaning toward a “C” for it, but the second segment looked strong enough to bring my grade up to a “B-“.

To my surprise, High Roller came with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. If anything occurred to differentiate the two, I couldn’t detect it. The mixes sounded identical to me.

Since Roller stuck mostly with dialogue and music, it didn’t offer a showy track. The score and songs demonstrated good stereo imaging, while the effects stayed largely with ambient impressions. Frankly, it’s hard to recall any sequences that stood out from the rest. Casinos showed a nice feeling of environment, and other situations used the five speakers to create a believable setting. That was about it, however, as the track failed to do anything memorable.

I always thought the mix offered solid audio quality. One casino scene showed a little edginess, but otherwise speech came across as concise and crisp. Although music could have boasted a little more low-end, I felt the songs and score were generally well-developed and full. As I noted, effects didn’t play an active role in the proceedings, but they were accurate and without any noticeable flaws. The soundtrack did its job and earned a “B-“.

When we head to the DVD’s extras, only one biggie appears here: an audio commentary with director AW Vidner, actors Michael Imperioli and Renee Faia, and poker expert Vincent Van Patten. At the start, Vidner and Faia sit together for a running, screen-specific discussion. Imperioli joins them via a remote hook-up after about 20 minutes or so, and Van Patten appears a couple of times around the film’s halfway point; he’s recorded separately and has his remarks edited into the body of the piece.

The commentary starts without much energy and never really manages to ignite. We learn a lot about locations, as Vidner often tells us what he shot where, and we also hear a bit about casting and working with actors, set design and period elements, the life of the real Stu Ungar, and general production anecdotes. During his short remarks, Van Patten tells us a little more about Ungar and the specifics of pro poker.

All of this probably sounds good, but the track moves slowly and fails to become very interesting. Plenty of lulls pop up along the way, and the information provided usually remains basic and without much merit. I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot from this tedious commentary.

We also find a music video for “Yesterdays” by Marc Eric. The video shows a haunted grungy dude - Eric, I suppose - as he rides around the desert and mulls his mistakes. Neither the song - which sounds like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door Part 2” - nor the video are any good.

Finally, More from New Line offers a few ads. We get promos for After the Sunset, Ripley’s Game, Blow, Knockaround Guys and Dinner Rush.

Trivia: There’s no doubt that Ungar knew how to play Texas Hold 'Em, as he won the World Series of Poker two years in a row (1981, 1982), but he was also an accomplished gin rummy player – some say the best ever. He allegedly had to make the transition to poker because his reputation made it too difficult to get any action.

Despite the presence of a potentially interesting lead character, High Roller plays more like a cheap Scorsese rip-off with few redeeming qualities. Michael Imperioli offers a decent performance as the lead, but otherwise this is a tacky, poorly told production. The DVD presents decent but unexceptional picture and sound along with skimpy extras that include a bland audio commentary. Avoid this cheesy dud.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6896 Stars Number of Votes: 29
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