‘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

Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ Plays It Way Too Safe by Both X-Men and General Movie Standards

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 114 Minute

Rating: PG-13 for Getting Suddenly Violently Tossed About by Telekinesis

Release Date: June 7, 2019

I love the X-Men. They’re my favorite superhero team, and still, through it all, my favorite superhero movie franchise. They’ve delivered some dizzying cinematic heights but also some flicks that have driven me batty. So it pains me to say that Dark Phoenix did not make me feel much in the way of any strong emotions.

Some say that the X-Men series is burdened by tangled, contradictory continuity. I say it’s bolstered by it. Whereas other cinematic universes are careful to keep every little thread in line for the health of a sturdy timeline, the Merry Mutants traverse decades willy-nilly, tossing off whatever plotlines just aren’t working and cruising along with whatever’s exciting and vibrant, paradoxes be damned! Dark Phoenix doesn’t reject that approach, but it doesn’t embrace it either. It’s mostly content to tell a straightforward story, while occasionally throwing out some half-baked ideas. It’s a movie unstuck in time, instead of proudly giving the middle finger to any temporal concepts.

Dark Phoenix is clearly a labor of love. It’s the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who’s been with the franchise for over a decade, and it’s based on one of the most beloved comics storylines, in which telepathic telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) bonds with a super-hot cosmic force to become the most powerful creature on the planet, perhaps the whole universe. It’s a huge climactic big screen culmination that’s been promised to us for quite some time, but after seeing how it’s turned out, I mainly want to say: we would have been okay without this movie. Or maybe now just wasn’t the right time for it. It’s arriving hot on the heels of an X-Men movie whose title literally referred to the end of the world and another that said a fitting goodbye to a pair of iconic X-characters.

But it shouldn’t have been impossible for Dark Phoenix to be another rousing, revolutionary statement so soon after those conclusive paradigm changes. In fact, it would have totally been in keeping with this franchise’s always-moving-forward ethos. But that’s not going to happen when a climactic battle scene takes place in some random New York hotel or when Professor X and Magneto run through the same old rigamarole of bickering and then making a temporary peace. When the stakes are this high, you have to go for broke.

Dark Phoenix is Recommended If You Like: X-Men completism, if you gotta

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Firebirds

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ready Player One’ Wrings Some Beauty and Profundity Out of Empty Calorie Storytelling

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

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

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Explosions (Both VR and Real Life), Threats of Gun Violence, Partial Referential Nudity, and PG-13’s One Free F-Bomb

Release Date: March 29, 2018

The premise of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is basically nerd wish fulfillment writ large: in a dystopian future, a gamer completes a series of puzzles based on pop culture touchstones in a massive virtual reality simulation for the prize of a billionaire’s inheritance. As it plays out, though, (in both the book and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation) it is more of a Robin Hood fantasy, with the winnings serving as the golden ticket to end income inequality. The improbability and the wish fulfillment are all well and good, but they do mean that everything wraps up a little too perfectly, so satisfaction must be found in the details and the execution. Spielberg has remained a proficient craftsman his entire career, so even though Ready Player One’s separation between right and wrong might be a little too stark, it still pulls off some genuine wonder.

The film keeps the same basic outline at the novel, save for switching out some of the homages, both because Spielberg wanted to limit references to his own past work and presumably because of rights issues. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time as his avatar Parzival in the VR world known as the OASIS, partly because his real life is situated in a ugly heap of metal, literally, as his home, like many in 2045, exists within one of many trailers stacked on top of each other. He hangs out with his crew of fellow gamers, whom he only knows virtually, which frankly isn’t all that different than how it is for some folks already in 2018. Wade of course falls in love with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a bit of a legend in the OASIS, who feels like she is specifically engineered to be the perfect girl for him, which is a bit of a pain, but at least Sheridan and Cooke keep it charming.

This crew’s quest finds them at odds with Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the brazenly stereotypical asshole CEO of a global conglomerate who employs an army of corporate drones to win the inheritance because he wants to turn the second biggest company in the world into the biggest company in the world, and he’s not averse to killing to get his way. He is plenty scary, but RPO could have benefited greatly from actually exploring what makes him tick.

It is appreciated that Wade is not a chosen one archetype so typical of the genre. The reason he succeeds is because he puts in the relentless work to understand the parameters and intricacies of the journey. That we get to see his process makes his racing a DeLorean around King Kong actually thrilling instead of just a prompt for ticking boxes off the reference checklist.

It is well worth noting that while the references draw from decades of pop culture, they are primarily based around the touchstones of the 1980s. That decade was partly defined by Spielberg, and it consisted of Cline’s formative years, but they are very much not the formative years of RPO’s main characters, nor much of the target audience. But within the narrative, they are the formative years for James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the OASIS co-creator who designed the game and bequeathed his fortune. Thus, the hours of study that Wade and his crew put in resonate in the way of culture being a way in to understand one’s fellow human beings.

With wizardly blond locks and profound diffidence, Rylance plays Halliday a lot like Garth Algar, but if Dana Carvey had envisioned the Aurora metalhead as the greatest tragic figure of all time. Ready Player One works best as an exploration into this one man’s psyche. His social awkwardness goes beyond any simple diagnosis, and Rylance does not shy away from the discomfort. Creating an all-encompassing VR world may be a bit of an overcorrection to his loneliness, but it is heartwarming that Halliday finds a way to make a genuine connection with the world, though it is more than a tad bittersweet how he accomplishes it.

Bottom line: with so much of Ready Player One rendered as virtual reality, it is frequently an off-putting eyesore. But it has moments of beauty, like Parzival and Art3mis’ free-floating dance; as well as strokes of demented remix genius, as when zombies overrun a rendering of Kubrick’s The Shining. Weirdly enough, the references actually end up having more soul and thoughtfulness than the characters (with the exception of Halliday).

Ready Player One is Recommended If You Like: Heavy referentiality whether justified or shameless, Mark Rylance getting deep into character work, The dance scene from WALL·E

Grade: 3 out of 5 Omnidirectional Treadmills