‘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

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 3/26/21

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Pooch Perfect (CREDIT: Christopher Willard/ABC)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Bad Trip (Streaming on Netflix) – Eric Andre strings Lil Rel and Tiffany Haddish along for his shenanigans.

TV
The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers Series Premiere (March 26 on Disney+) – Ducks never say die.
Solar Opposites Season 2 (March 26 on Hulu)
Pooch Perfect Series Premiere (March 30 on ABC) – Rebel Wilson hosts a dog grooming competish!

Music
-Evanescence, The Bitter Truth

Who Can Resist Taking a ‘Bad Trip’ with Eric Andre? Not I, Said This Reviewer

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Bad Trip (CREDIT: Dimitry Elyashkevich/Netflix)

Starring: Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish, Michaela Conlin

Director: Kitao Sakurai

Running Time: 84 Minutes

Rating: R for Thoroughly Shameless Crudity, Nudity, and Psychoactive Drug Indulgence

Release Date: March 26, 2021 (Netflix)

I sure wish I had been able to experience Bad Trip in a packed theater, but at least my hearty laughs in my solo viewing experience were enough to fill my living room. This delightfully demented piece of guerilla filmmaking is basically a feature-length version of the man-on-the-street bits from Eric Andre’s anarchic eponymous Adult Swim talk show. Starring alongside Andre are a couple of famous funny people as well as dozens of unsuspecting members of the public. There’s a bit of a story (with the screenplay credited to Andre, Dan Curry, and director Kitao Sakurai), in which Florida Man Chris (Andre) has a chance meeting with his old school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin), who invites him to come check out her art gallery in New York City. He then invites his best pal Bud (Lil Rel Howery) on a road trip to the Big Apple, and they abscond in a car that belongs to Bud’s incarcerated sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish), who busts out and tracks down the boys with deadly intentions. The narrative actually hangs together a lot more nicely than I would expect in a prank film, but ultimately it’s just an excuse for a bunch of outrageous shenanigans.

Practical jokes can be hilarious, but ethically speaking, if you’re going to be a professional hooligan, you ought to be careful about who you select as the butts of your jokes. I approve of Andre’s mischief because he is consistently the target of his own pranks. He renders himself into every possible version of a fool, while the unsuspecting public provides another layer of humor by serving as witnesses struggling to make sense of the chaos unfolding around them. In Bad Trip, that chaos includes fake blood splatter, fake projectile vomit splatter, and fake semen splatter. (Shame is a foreign concept to Eric Andre.) The crowd might get hit by some shrapnel, but Andre’s the only one who’s truly suffering for his art.

Bad Trip unsurprisingly holds up when considered on a scene-by-scene basis. But it’s tough to sustain a narrative when utilizing a sketch-comedy sensibility. But shocker of shockers, it turns out that the script delivers some satisfying emotional payoffs to all of its characters. It helps that everyone involved takes a decidedly askew approach to the tropes of buddy flicks. For example, there’s a runner about the notorious 2004 Wayans Brothers cross-dressing comedy White Chicks that improbably gets its own little mini-arc and cathartic conclusion. We all need a space for our ids to run free every once in a while, and I’m so glad that Eric Andre and his cohorts have put theirs on display for all the world to see.

Bad Trip is Recommended If You Like: The Eric Andre Show, Jackass, Borat

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stolen Cars

‘Like a Boss’ Goes Broad When It Could Have Gone Weird

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Starring: Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Coolidge, Billy Porter, Ari Graynor, Natasha Rothwell, Jessica St. Clair, Karan Soni, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen

Director: Miguel Arteta

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Totally Open Sexual Discussions Between Close Friends

Release Date: January 10, 2020

In the spirit of being experimental with my movie reviews in 2020, I have decided to review Like a Boss as if someone going to see it thought it were somehow based on the SNL Digital Short of the same name. Now, this might be a little hard to conceive of, because even though there are indeed movies based on SNL sketches, there hasn’t been one in a while, and a two-minute one-off would be an odd candidate for expanding out to feature film length. But after overcoming this initial disappointment (or non-disappointing plain-old realization), this theoretical moviegoer can be comforted by the fact that this movie stars people like Tiffany Haddish and Salma Hayek, who have hosted SNL, and people like Rose Byrne and Billy Porter, who would surely be great SNL hosts if given the chance. On top of that, the movie starts off with a demented sketch comedy-esque sensibility, with bits involving accidentally getting high around an infant and a baby shower cake that features a head crowning out of a vagina and chocolate sprinkles as pubic hair.

Alas, after a rollicking opening ten minutes, Like a Boss settles into a standard issue broad studio comedy groove about Haddish and Byrne as a couple of lifelong friends and business partners struggling with massive debt. There are a few elements that suggest it could have been something a little more offbeat, in particular Hayek’s huge pearly white chompers. There is a bleached-to-perfection, but also slightly degenerate quality to her cosmetics mogul character that someone like John Waters would surely be proud of. It sounds like a solid fit for director Miguel Arteta (who previously directed Hayek to a fantastic performance in the simmeringly toxic Beatriz at Dinner), but the hijinks of the story pull him away from his knack for weirdos puncturing the niceties of the world around them. So in conclusion, if you’re in the mood for the Lonely Island Like a Boss, you’ll probably be even more likely to decry the fact that Business Lady Like a Boss doesn’t allow its comedic imagination to run completely wild.

Like a Boss is Recommended If You Like: Gags about spicy food, Drone-based physical comedy, Makeup tutorials

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Controlling Stakes

Movie Review: ‘The Lego Movie 2’ Has Some More Valuable Lessons to Teach Us With Bright Colors and Peppy Songs

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman

Director: Mike Mitchell

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Traumatizing Lego Destruction

Release Date: February 8, 2019

Where does a sequel go after the original makes such a definitive statement? This is the conundrum facing The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. (That subtitle is infinitely unnecessary, but not indicative of the movie’s humor as a whole, and also this title would have looked rather naked without a subtitle.) 2015’s first part summed up in cinematic form the whole ethos of the iconic Danish building blocks: in a world that often favors rigidity and conformity, you cannot give up on your individuality, because everyone can be and is special. Childlike imagination and wonder are what fueled The Lego Movie to be as successful as it was. Those values will get you pretty far in life. So why do any more statements need to be made?

It turns out that while The Lego Movie offers a philosophy with wide-ranging applicability, it is not quite a grand unified theory that covers absolutely everything. It spoke to the power of a singular creative vision, but The Second Part demonstrates how collaboration is equally vital. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) and his Lego friends are now living in the wasteland Apocalypseburg, because in the human world that is controlling them, a little sister has invaded the playspace of her big brother. So Emmet, Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and company head out to broker a peace with some differently designed block-creatures. This leads to permanent bachelor Batman becoming engaged to a sparkly shape-shifter voiced by Tiffany Haddish, while Superman (Channing Tatum) lives happily alongside General Zod in a Stepford-esque perfect suburb.

Sizing up the situation, Emmet believes that his mission is to free his friends from the brainwashing of strangers. But while it may seem that all is not what it seems, it turns out that that particular mystery trope is not being played as straight as you might expect. The Lego Movie taught us to be skeptical about a constantly smiling world insisting that everything is awesome, but it also taught us that awesomeness sometimes really is awesome if it has genuine feeling behind it. The candy-coated invading milieu of The Second Part initially appears to be fundamentally suspicious. But sometimes a bright, peppy outer layer is only covering a bright and rewarding core. Sometimes a catchy song that jams itself right in your head is so buoyant that you’re happy it’s stuck there. Belief in yourself is important, but don’t forget to be open-minded about everyone else.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is Recommended If You Like: The Lego Movie and its spin-offs, Playing with your siblings

Grade: 4 out of 5 Catchy Songs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Oath’ Offers a Caustic Vision of Thanksgiving in an America Built on Loyalty Above All Else

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CREDIT: Topic Studios/Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass

Director: Ike Barinholtz

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for the Profanity of Thanksgiving and Surprisingly Potentially Lethal Violence

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

I do not pledge allegiance to The Oath. Nor do I pledge anti-allegiance to it. That lack of fiery passion might be antithetical to a movie that is all about getting everyone riled up, but I need to be honest about how I really feel. And besides, I believe that The Oath ultimately advocates taking a breath and having more measured reactions to potentially explosive situations.

Is the America of The Oath the America that writer-director Ike Barinholtz is worried his country is turning into? He stars as Chris, alongside Tiffany Haddish as his wife Kai, with the two of them united in their disgust at The President’s Oath, an act that requests that Americans declare their allegiance to the president. Barinholtz and Haddish are both known for playing unpredictable balls of energy, but they both tone it down quite a bit here. Perhaps it is best to think of Chris and Kai as what the typical Barinholtz and Haddish characters would become if they settled down in the suburbs and had a young daughter. They are still plenty wound-up, though, Barinholtz especially, as Chris is a news junkie who despairs at every story that pops up on his screens. I suspect that Barinholtz is not quite so constantly on edge in his personal life and that he allows himself the catharsis of freaking out in his work. (If my presumption is wrong, then I sympathize with his friends and families.)

The fallout of the Oath on Chris and Kai and their extended family plays out on Thanksgiving, that hallowed day of controversial conversations between loved ones breaking down along predictably political lines. The Oath ups the ante by throwing government officials, firearms, and general creeping paranoia into the mix. Barinholtz is clearly influenced by a current administration that values loyalty above ethics, but he keeps his warning timeless by avoiding giving a name to anyone in charge. This breakdown in trust in society could happen any time, The Oath argues, and maybe wacky black comedies are the best thing we have to make sense of that.

The Oath is Recommended If You Like: Black comedy stage plays about squabbling families, Grounded political dystopias

Grade: 3 out of 5 Breaking News Alerts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Uncle Drew’ Shows the Youngbloods How It’s Done

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Lionsgate.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Erica Ash, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Nick Kroll, Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, Mike Epps

Director: Charles Stone III

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for General Shenanigans and a 7-Foot-Tall Man’s Bare Behind

Release Date: June 29, 2018

One of the joys of growing up in the 1990s was savoring the plethora of sports movies and athletes moonlighting as movie stars. It was something of a golden age, or at least that’s how it appeared to my impressionable mind. There were the minor, but era-defining hits like Rookie of the Year, Shaq was basically allowed to do whatever he wanted, even Dennis Rodman teamed up with Jean-Claude van Damme before he became buddies with Kim Jong Un. And of course there was the landmark success of Space Jam. This is all to say, movies like Uncle Drew, which stars NBA star Kyrie Irving as a character he originated for Pepsi Max, don’t really get made anymore. And while it certainly does not reinvent the sports flick or old-people-drag genres, it is heartening to know that something like this can still exist.

The title character, a Harlem streetball legend spoken about in mythical terms, certainly plays into a desire to return to past glories, as he chastises and schools young ballers on the right way to play the game. He is also prone to decry the “rappity-hippity-hop” music of today’s “youngbloods,” instead preferring to listen to hours-long funk jams on the eight-track player in his vintage van. But the film manages to avoid unhealthy nostalgia, as Drew’s version of the past is too goofy and demented to tempt anyone away from dismissing reality. The humor of this team of old farts, while certainly broadly drawn, is based on actual characterization instead of shallow punch lines. Actual NBA and WNBA stars like Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, and Lisa Leslie have plenty of natural charisma. And there is just something inherently satisfying about dressing Shaq up like Wolverine’s grandfather and continuing to rib Chris Webber for one of the biggest mental lapses in basketball history.

What will make Uncle Drew a great choice over the coming years to watch for the hundredth time with friends is its fundamental niceness. We come to meet Drew via Dax (Lil Rel Howery), a streetball manager dedicated to the game but who gave up playing it years ago after a mortifying middle school defeat. Recently homeless, he is desperate to win the $100,000 grand prize at a high-profile Harlem tournament, thus why he turns to Drew and his band of old coots despite their clashing personalities and body temperatures. When the team finds out about Dax’s financial troubles, they feel a little betrayed upon discovering his true motivations, but they mostly encourage him to get back in touch with his love of the game. That ethos of bonhomie is matched by Uncle Drew‘s fundamentally welcome silliness and lovingly shot footage of between-the-legs dribbling, lights-out three pointers, and slam dunks.

Uncle Drew is Recommended If You Like: Space Jam, Coming to America, ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries

Grade: 3 out of 5 Boom Boom Rooms

SNL Review November 11, 2017: Tiffany Haddish/Taylor Swift

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-tiffany-haddishtaylor-swift/

Roy Moore and Jeff Sessions – B-

Tiffany Haddish’s Monologue – B

GamerCon – B-

The Lion King Screen Tests – B-

Message From the DNC – B-

Beck and Kyle – B+

Taylor Swift performs “…Ready for It?” – B

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B
Claire from HR – B-
Lavar Ball – B

The Last Black Unicorn – C

Get Woke with Tamika (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B+

The Dolphin Who Learned to Speak – B

Taylor Swift -performs “Call It What You Want” – C+

Whiskers R We – B