Monday, September 28, 2015

Mississippi Grind (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck


There's an inherent dichotomy in most gambling movies in the vain of Mississippi Grind. They usually are very fatalistic about the consequences of gambling: lives ruined, families and friendships torn apart, broken trusts that are beyond repair. All that said, these films usually put the protagonist in a place to redeem themselves by - you guessed it - betting the farm in one last major play. Even the Paul Newman masterpiece, The Hustler, with its conclusion wrapped in despairing realities, lets the main character win big to settle the score. Don't get me wrong. I don't exactly see this as a flaw within this specific sub-genre, not all the time anyway. Gambling presents a never-ending cycle, with the odds stating simply that misery will not always be the result, it's the perpetual possibility of the win that makes the compulsive gambler so tragic - there's never really a good enough reason to stop. Mississippi Grind, the latest from the terrific indie filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, takes a stab at this conceit, understanding this basic concept about gambling and the people that fall into its grasp. Like their previous films, Grind has an infatuation with lost souls, and like their very best film, Half Nelson, we're introduced to an odd couple struggling with the amount of need one has for the other. In a lot of ways, Mississippi Grind is a love story unlike anything we've seen in a gambling movie before.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Black Mass (***)

Directed by Scott Cooper


The idea of casting Johnny Depp as James "Whitey" Bulger is comical. I've seen Black Mass and I've seen how good Depp is in it, and I still think it's comical. It's brazen stunt casting, but this film shows you why you attempt it in the first place. Casting a formerly brilliant performer in a role that he should have nothing to do with might just create the impossible: it might get him to try. Bulger is a captivating figure; a despicable criminal responsible for multiple murders, amongst many other crimes. In Black Mass, we see him as an overwhelming figure, not so much of an anti-hero but an anti-god. Given an opportunity by the FBI to take down opposing crime organizations in South Boston, Bulger squeezed every ounce of federal help he could get, informing on his enemies and only making himself a stronger and more menacing presence in the process. When it was all said and done, Bulger abandoned all his partners. Most of them went to jail, and told the story that eventually became the book version of Black Mass. The film version is a flash edit. It's a greatest hits collection, but it understands its purpose. Characters like Bulger do not rise amongst the ranks as quickly as he did without a little bit of intelligence and a lot of charm. This is where employing Depp really pays off, as the actor recreates the notorious criminal with frightening alacrity.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sicario (***)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian director, but his last three releases have been American films for American audiences (Enemy was shot in Canada, but it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, so it obviously had a lot of American appeal). All three films are shot with distinct color palettes and sharp imaging, so we know we're dealing with a competent filmmaker. Based on these three films alone, it's obvious that Villeneuve is interested in more nuanced deconstructions of evil. There are no white and black hats, no transparent storytelling structure set up to tell you flatly who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Not very American. It's exciting to see an outsider make films here and crush our dogmatic rules of pro/antagonism. Enemy was a succinct, terrific doppelganger film about a man's split lives; while Prisoners is another film about the male ego, the struggle of patriarchy in the face of tragedy, the incessant need for men to continue the appearance of strength in response to chaos. Neither film was perfect, but both films did defy expectations, and brought out excellent performances from Gyllenhaal. Villeneuve's latest film, Sicario, is his first American film to focus on a woman. That woman is played by Emily Blunt, an actress with a wide range of talent on screen, both emotional and physical. Blunt is surrounded by men throughout this film, Villeneuve makes it so. Even with a female in the lead, Villeneuve's films are still a man's world.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sleeping With Other People (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Leslye Headland


The dynamic of a film like Sleeping With Other People is interesting. It's very dependent on its cast for entertainment, and luckily for the film, it's stars are Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, two actors whose comedic charms are worthy of star-level fame, but who never seem to quite get there. But the film's script (penned by the director, Leslye Headland) seems packed with ideas about sex, gender and basic relationship ethics. If these two forces were on the same page, we'd probably have the best romantic comedy of the year, but alas, that's not always the case. Saturday Night Live veteran Sudeikis and Community all-star Brie seem poised for a Apatow-esque send off of the classic When Harry Met Sally... friends-with-benefits plot, but their antics rub against the sentimentality that Headland imbues in the story. We've seen plenty of movies about two beautiful people who swear to stay friends despite an obvious attraction to one another, but Sleeping With Other People is the only film within this subgenre that really wants you to believe that these two friends won't get together. It wants to earn a prize for not Jim-and-Pam'ing us, but we know all along that that's exactly what's going to happen. It's hedging its bets as a "serious" comedy, instead of really shining as a film that delivers on what's best: giving its two stars free reign.