‘The Card Counter’ Has a Lot More On Its Itinerary Than Gambling

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The Card Counter (CREDIT: Focus Features)

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe

Director: Paul Schrader

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for A Hotel Rendezvous and Hellish Scenes of Explicit Torture

Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Theaters)

The Card Counter stars the darkly handsome Oscar Isaac as numerically blessed gambler William Tell. He drifts from casino to casino, careful to keep his winnings modest so as not to attract too much attention, all the while letting us in on his methods via voiceover narration. Then Tiffany Haddish shows up as La Linda, a scout who would like to recruit him onto the World Series of Poker circuit. These are two distinct acting flavors, but I have a suspicion that they’re going to go great together, so I’m happy to be on board, no matter where this story ends up going. And it certainly must be emphasized that this affair is written and directed by Paul Schrader, who’s known for his morally probing character studies when collaborating with Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and when busting out on his own (First Reformed). It’s always essential to have a variety of voices collaborating on a movie set, and The Card Counter is mighty fine evidence of that.

Just when we’re ready to settle into this movie’s groove of gambling games and existential reflection, it lets you know that there’s actually a whole lot more going on. It turns out that this isn’t Paul Schrader’s Poker Movie, but rather, Paul Schrader’s Guantanamo Boy Movie. In a past life that isn’t so past, William Tell was a big deal military interrogator stationed at that notoriously torture-filled base. And now he’s on a mission to confront that past. His plan goes in unexpected directions when he meets up with Tye Sheridan’s Cirk*, who has his own personal connection to William’s former boss, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). (*That’s “Cirk,” like “Kirk.” When he introduced himself as “Cirk with a C,” I wondered if that “C” came at the beginning or end of his name.)

It’s worth noting that I find the milieu of most gambling establishments to be terribly oppressive. Luckily, though, The Card Counter makes things a little more bearable with its uniformly compelling, as well as some genuinely goofy moments, like the flag-clad poker players chanting “USA! USA!” Those moments of levity, as well as the positively steamy chemistry between Isaac and Haddish, are essential for getting through the absolute muck that is the Guantanamo portion of the story. I’m not really sure what William or Cirk’s plan is, or if they even have a plan but are instead just cool and collected enough to give off the illusion that they have it all together. Maybe counting cards is just a way to find some order in a profoundly disordered world. If that means we’ve got a movie that’s half tightly coiled, half messy beyond all comprehension, then that sounds like a deal worth going in on.

The Card Counter is Recommended If You Like: First Reformed, Fisheye lens detours, Sour insides wrapped up in a savory exterior

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Flops

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is Frustrating and Deeply Satisfying – It’s So Great to Be Alive!

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CREDIT: Lucasfilm

This whole review discusses plot points in detail, so … spoiler warningggggggggggg!!!

I guess J.J. Abrams isn’t the one to cure Star Wars of its reputation for clunky and/or imaginative dialogue. So many of the lines in The Rise of Skywalker are variations of “Go! Go! Go!” or “I love my friends.” Except for C-3PO. Man, that guy is golden! Does Anthony Daniels write his own dialogue? I would like to nominate 3PO for Most Consistently Charming Character in Franchise Movie History. I mean, quips like “You didn’t say my name, sir, but I’m all right” – how can one droid bless us so much?!

I liked The Rise of Skywalker more than I didn’t. But for a movie that I like (love even!), there sure are a lot of elements that drove me  batty! And some of them could have been just fine (or brilliant even) if they had been carried out a little differently. I’ll get to the big one in a bit, but first off, why is the first hour or so of this movie a hunt for a McGuffin? When characters are on the run in Star Wars, their purpose is clear and meaningful. It’s not just a hunt for a whatever device. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt so McGuffin-y if the danger weren’t dispatched so easily…

Speaking of, I’m fine with the “death” of Chewbacca turning out to be a bait and switch, but maybe give us at least five minutes to think that he might have actually died, so that it can resonate when we discover that he’s actually fine. Similarly, I think it’s perfectly okay that C-3PO’s memory wipe isn’t permanent, but let’s draw out some more mileage of the recovery of those memories. I’m sure they can easily get a tight five out of R2-D2 catching him up to speed.

Now for the big Big BIG one: I suspect that J.J. Abrams had decided that Rey was Palpatine’s granddaughter when he made The Force Awakens. But since he didn’t convey that explicitly, that left The Last Jedi free to say that her parents were nobodies. So Skywalker combines both origins, which tracks logically enough, but changes the message. Rey rejecting her Sith parentage is resonant, though it’s not as unique a message as the idea that powerful Jedi can come from anywhere. That message isn’t refuted, but it’s not underscored as much as I suspect would have been beneficial. So if JJ was married to the Palpatine-Rey connection, what if he were to instead make it a King Herod situation, wherein Palpatine senses Rey’s remarkable power and becomes dead set on hunting her down and either recruiting her or destroying her?

Hey, here’s another question I have: what did Finn need to tell Rey? My suspicion was that it was a confession of love, since he was obviously so smitten with her when they first met, and I think they’ve always been great together. But then he had possible sparks with Rose and then he has a connection with Jannah (not to mention Poe, although any romance there was only ever speculative). Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ben are getting ever closer to form that dyad. So maybe I misread what Finn needed to say. But whatever it was, it was clearly important to him, and it just never came up again! Why not add 30 seconds for some unburdening?

But for all those miscues, I am massively satisfied by the ending, particularly Rey declaring herself a Skywalker and the entire trilogy-wide resolution of her arc. When all those Jedi voices reach out to her, it’s transcendent. Why not have more moments like that?! But what we got is enough to leave me happy, and The Last Jedi‘s contribution of the conviction that great Jedi can come from anywhere remains intact. And the aesthetic Star Wars qualities like droids beeping and Babu Frick tinkering are as lovely as ever.

TL;DR: increase the bleep-bloops and good kind of mystical woo-doo, decrease the bad kind of mystical woo-woo.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Reveals Willem Dafoe as an Uncanny Vincent van Gogh

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CREDIT: CBS Films

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Director: Julian Schnabel

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense Mental Turmoil and the Fallout of Self-Mutilation

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)

Wow, does Willem Dafoe sure look like Vincent van Gogh. I had never noticed the resemblance before, but now that the actor has played the Dutch painter in At Eternity’s Gate, I cannot unsee it, and I am left to wonder how I never noticed it before. Perhaps adding a bandage to cover up an ear (or where an ear should be) was essential for making the similarity come into focus. Casting a lookalike actor is not exactly the most impressive cinematic feat, but its effectiveness can transcend its lack of difficulty, as is the case here. The effect is complete only if the actor manages to forge an emotional connection as striking as the physical one. Dafoe is certainly up to the task, with the deep pools in his eyes conveying the sublime weight of the world that hung upon van Gogh’s face.

Van Gogh is one of the most famous examples of the troubled, mentally ill artist. Director Julian Schnabel does not romanticize that side of him, but nor does he attempt to remove it entirely from his creative process. Depression probably made it more difficult for van Gogh to get his work done, but it also forced him into certain perspectives that are strikingly illuminated in his paintings. However, At Eternity’s Gate is less about van Gogh’s creative process and more about how he relates to the world. He has trouble relating to most people, just as they have trouble understanding him. But he does have at least one cherished friendship, with his fellow post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). My brother was telling me that he heard that Gauguin’s purpose in this film is essentially to regularly ask van Gogh, “You doing okay?” That is correct, and it is a crucial purpose. In the film, the ear-cutting incident is played as a moment of panic when van Gogh fears that Gauguin is going to abandon him. It is a highly relatable situation for anyone who has ever experienced anxiety related to their friends moving on in their lives, and it serves to make the struggles of someone who lived over 100 years ago less abstract. The world can be overwhelming, and it has been for some time. Somehow van Gogh made his mark on that journey. We should cherish that for what it is worth, whatever that inscrutable value is.

At Eternity’s Gate is Recommended If You Like: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Melancholia, Willem Dafoe in a starring role

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Starry Nights

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Hybrid

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

Director: Alex Garland

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Gator-Shark Attacks, Giant Bear Attacks, Swirling Intestines, and a Little Bit of Nookie

Release Date: February 23, 2018

Annihilation needs you to trust that sometimes disorientation can be good. Or at least, that it can be exciting. I will admit that disorientation does not necessarily work out so well for this film’s characters. The relative safety afforded the audience in vicariously experiencing this vexing and dangerous journey makes secondhand disorientation easier to defend. But still, I think the message here is the same for both participants and observers: venturing into the confusion is how to make the spectacle happen.

Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) ever since he took off for a highly classified military expedition a year ago, when suddenly he just reappears in their house one day. But Kane has essentially no memory of what happened, and it is clear soon enough that there is so much of his mission left to complete. So Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her and her team of scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) to trek into Area X, the coastal location that Kane and many others have gotten lost in, and figure out what the hell is going on there.

I do not recall Annihilation specifying the exact geographical location of Area X. It is possible it did and I just missed it, which can happen when a film mentions a significant detail only briefly. But in this case it is appropriate that I would miss such a detail, whether or not it was actually omitted. Area X is surrounded by a liquidy substance, or perhaps “presence” is a better word, referred to as “a shimmer,” which disorients anyone who approaches or moves through it. When Ventress and her crew first awake in the area, they seem to have immediately lost days, maybe even weeks. If we as an audience feel like we are missing just as many details as they are, then writer/director Alex Garland is probably pulling off what he set out to do. What awaits all of us is a world of wonders that can be explained by science, even though science says they should be impossible.

Flowers of clearly different species are growing on the same branches. The team is attacked by a gator with shark teeth. Plants in the shape of walking humans have sprung up. Eventually these ladies recognize their own blood and DNA swirling and transforming. These combinations are supposed to be fundamentally incompatible according to life as we know it. Lena’s on-the-fly theorizing of this continuous mutation works as a sort of explanation of how mythical hybrid creatures or the monstrosities from genre films could come to exist if they were to exist in reality.

The crew confronts Area X and its inhabitants with a mix of paranoia, wonder, fatalism, and determination. Considering the constant transformation inherent to this setting, it could be argued that all or none or some indefinable combination of these approaches is the right plan of action. Appropriately, it is all rendered by a design and effects team inspiring awe on a thoroughly devastating scale. The lush greenery is both beautiful and explosive. The music, courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is unnerving and entrancing, including a set of reverberating notes that the trailer has already made famous. This intoxicating mix also offers up a series of killer set pieces, including a riff on The Thing’s notorious blood test scene, but featuring the main animal from a creature feature imbued with the Freddy Krueger-style power to maintain the dying cries of its victims.

Annihilation hits that sci-fi sweet spot of a confusing, complicated premise that ultimately explains itself, but not in a way that betrays its intricacies or ambitions, or makes matters particularly comforting. This is visionary cinema, flourishing and fully realizing itself from glorious setup to perfect ending.

Annihilation is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, 2001, Fringe, Cronenbergian body horror, The design elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mulholland Drive

Grade: 5 out of 5 Shimmers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Suburbicon’ Pokes at the Myth of a Utopian America by Exposing Both Latent Criminality and Racism to Chaotic, Intermittently Thrilling, Results

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Black Bear Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba

Director: George Clooney

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Wiseguy-Style Punching, Stabbing, Explosions, and Poisoning and Some Slap-Happy Hanky-Panky

Release Date: October 27, 2017

In the perfect mid-20th Century American town of Suburbicon (basically Leave It to Beaver sprung to life), the dream of raising a family with no worries and getting along with all your neighbors has been fully, uniformly realized. Or at least, that’s how it’s being sold. Whenever a movie begins with a montage praising picture-perfect suburbia, it is clear that we are actually in for satire. In this case, it is a violently screwball riff on Double Indemnity.

The idea that a utopian town can really exist is punctured fairly immediately when the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is invaded by a couple of goons intent on thievery and terrorizing. Rose ends up dying at the hands of the thieves, leaving Gardner to raise their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) with the help of Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). But it soon becomes clear that Gardner and Margaret were behind Rose’s death, for the sake of paying off Gardner’s mob debts and so that they can cash in on the life insurance policy on Rose and escape to a Caribbean paradise. So this really is 100% Double Indemnity in the Cleavers’ neighborhood.

Ultimately, though, Suburbicon does not offer much new to say with its recontextualization, save for Matt Damon riding a comically undersized bicycle. Considering the talent assembled, that is notably disappointing. But it is not entirely surprising, as the array of violence involves the Coen brothers (who wrote the script along with Clooney and Grant Heslov) indulging in their most outrageous tendencies. At least Oscar Isaac livens things up quite a bit as the claims adjuster of claims adjusters, though his appearance is all too brief (somewhat necessarily so).

But wait! If that narrative disappoints you, why not check out the other fully fleshed out story existing within the very same movie? Suburbicon has just welcomed its first black family, although “welcomed” is far from the right word for many residents. It seems that this town’s ideals are false not just because it cannot keep the mob at bay but also because its lily-white identity includes a big hunk of racism.

If this sounds like two completely different movies, that it is in fact how much of it plays out. But that is also kind of the point. The racism portion gets relatively short shrift, but the idea does seem to be that Suburbicon, and in turn America, would like to pretend that this problem does not exist. That is a tricky point to make, though, and Suburbicon’s touch is not exactly delicate. Ultimately, then, the film is well-intentioned, but its tone is too all over the place for those intentions to be as clear as they need to be.

Suburbicon is Recommended If You Like: Anything and everything influenced by Double Indemnity, The Coen Brothers at their most cartoonishly violent, Two movies with starkly different focuses smooshed together

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Explosions

This Is a Movie Review: The Promise

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale

Director: Terry George

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Acknowledging Crimes of Humanity Against Humanity

Release Date: April 21, 2017

This February’s Bitter Harvest strove for epic love against the real-life backdrop of the Soviet Ukrainian famine of the 1930’s. The effort to shine a light on an oft-ignored chapter in history was admirable, but the tame dramatization resulted in a less-than-memorable story. The Promise operates by much the same principles of historical examination but ends up with something more compelling, thanks to a more complicated romantic scenario. The setting in this case is especially relevant: the World War I-era systematic extermination of Armenians within the Ottoman Empire, which the Turkey (Ottoman’s successor) to this day refuses to refer to as “genocide.” If shots of fleeing Armenians can stir up empathy for today’s refugees, then The Promise will prove its worth in at least one way.

Furthering the Bitter Harvest comparison, The Promise is the latest in a long line of American-produced historical epics with questionable casting. There are some Armenians and Turks among the supporting cast, but the main players consist of a mix of Guatemalan (Oscar Isaac), Iranian (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and French Canadian (Charlotte Le Bon, although at least in her case she is playing an Armenian raised in Paris). Even the main American is played by a Welsh-Englishman!

I am not systematically opposed to an actor’s ethnicity not matching up with the character, but when a movie is about the attempted destruction of an entire people, and only one of the principal roles is played by a member of that people (Westworld’s Angela Sarafyan), the optics do not look great. Isaac’s accent work is solid, and he brings so much decency to his performance such that his lack of Middle Eastern heritage does not detract from the film’s overall quality. Still, it is worth considering this issue from a business and humanistic standpoint.

The Promise illuminates how emotional and familial well-being are insignificant but also essential in the face of widespread disaster. The synopses I have encountered have billed this as a love triangle, but it is really more of a quadrangle. Armenian villager Mikael (Isaac) moves to Constantinople for medical school, which he can afford thanks to the dowry he receives after agreeing to marry fellow villager Maral (Sarafyan). While in school, he meets and falls in love with Ana (Le Bon). She quite passionately reciprocates his feelings, though she is married to American journalist Chris (Bale).

As war breaks out, the story takes a turn toward labor camps, escapes under cover of night, and attempts to flee the country. The romantic rivals are allies in the greater struggle of exposing the truth and rescuing their loved ones. Isaac conveys the burden and resolve of a man bound by duty that is at odds with his once-in-a-lifetime romance. When he and Bale share the screen, the tension is riveting – you are never sure if they will punch or hug each other. This is the struggle of an existence driven by both emotions and morals. When humanity – both the principle and the population – is threatened with extinction, living right and living passionately still must find a way.

The Promise is Recommended If You Like: Atonement, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan

Grade: 3 out of 5 Sacrifices

Best Film Performances of 2015

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OscarIsaac-ExMachinaDance

Here is a rundown of the excellence in individual performances in films in 2015, starting with my choices for the 2 best and then the rest in alphabetical order. At the top are a fellow who talked and talked his way through a freaky-cerebral premise, and a lady who cracked her buoyant starting point into a heartbreakingly complicated interior.

Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
Alison Brie, Sleeping with Other People

alison-brie-sleeping-other-people-dance

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy
Angela Bassett, Chi-Raq
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Josh Brolin, Sicario
Steve Carell, The Big Short
John Cusack, Chi-Raq
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
Robert De Niro, The Intern
Deanna Dunagan, The Visit
Joel Edgerton, Black Mass
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight
O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Straight Outta Compton
Michal B. Jordan, Creed
Brie Larson, Room
Peter McRobbie, The Visit
Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Seth Rogen, Steve Jobs
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Phyllis Smith, Inside Out
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Lily Tomlin, Grandma
Stanley Tucci, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina