Skip to main content

I stick to modest goals.

The Card Counter

(SPOILERS) A silly and contrived Paul Schrader picture, which shouldn’t be a great surprise coming off the back of the grossly overrated First Reformed. Once upon a time, Schrader penned an all-time-classic screenplay (turned into a all-time-classic movie) about a veteran who drove a taxi around scum-ridden NYC. Now, he’s penned a turgid-and-forgettable screenplay about a veteran who counts cards for a living, having spent eight years in military prison for crimes committed at Abu Ghraib, and who takes under his wing the son of another soldier, who was prosecuted and committed suicide; the son plans revenge on the major who oversaw said prison. It’s a convolution of unwieldy elements, ones that fail to mesh in any coherent manner as Schrader overlays his usual Calvinist guilt tics on The Card Counter while straining for social relevance.

It’s easy to forget, since First Reformed rather rehabilitated his stock, that Schrader’s output has been largely derided for the best part of two decades (Auto Focus was his last prior movie to garner broad approval). The idea that he should suddenly have raised the bar of his material – especially if you found First Reformed an indulgent slog – is not one that yields much interrogation. And so it proves. Schrader has a reputation for delivering strong characters, so it’s unsurprising he can attract the likes of Oscar Isaac, even for such a modestly budget affair as this. However, if The Card Counter wears its limited budget on its sleeve, its real shortfall is in the writing.

None of the interactions in this world seem remotely plausible or relatable. Had Schrader succeeded in furnishing his artificial casino world with a heightened, interior, claustrophobic atmosphere, that might have been partially conducive to these unlikely encounters and relationships. Instead, there’s a stultifying flatness that emphasises both the characters’ absurdity and the often-rudimentary approach to dialogue and motivation.

Isaac’s William Tell is presented as a projected persona, a Schrader substitute, with his rigid code (“I prefer to work under the radar”) and monastic existence; the character and his world are ripe for investigation, if only the writer-director had been willing to spend the time and investment. Instead, he chooses to grapple with a subject with even less cinematic currency than when it was a decade and a half ago, when it was still immediately topical. By all means disinter the US’s War on Terror tactics, but if you do, bring something to the table. Schrader has no insights here, other than the obvious (it’s appalling and obscene).

Worse, he resorts to cartoonish sketches as he tries to bring these crimes to life. The prison-set torture flashbacks are characterised by an omnipresent, over-employed fisheye lens. Willem Dafoe’s leering, moustachioed Major Gordo is a despicable cartoon who gets what he deserves (“I’m going to put you on the night shift. That’s where the good stuff happens”).

William charts a consequently hackneyed journey through guilt and penance to redemption, as a divine instrument of justice and retribution; Schrader is seen to affirm the righteousness of his eye-for-an-eye action at the conclusion (and for this, God gives William his reward: Tiffany Hadish. I’m not sure if that’s back-handed, but still).

The subplot of Tye Sheridan’s Cirk is ungainly and awkward; he’s a character introduced to yield risible exposition (“The apples weren’t bad. The barrel they are from is bad”). That, or invite equally risible insights from the haunted William, who feels some degree of responsibility for Cirk, who insistently resists any sympathetic perspective. One almost senses Schrader wrote the character into the screenplay and then, finding nothing valuable for him to contribute, was stuck with the decision.

There’s a consistent sense of clumsiness throughout. Schrader has Cirk playing heavy-metal music in the car so William can admonish his insensitivity (“If you’d ever actually been there, you’d never want to hear that shit again in your life”). I mean, surely Cirk would have been aware of this, had he really done the research he claims (scan even a brief precis of Abu Ghraib and you’ll be aware of the techniques employed). That’s characteristic of the writing, though; William tells La Linda (La Hadish) “What they don’t like are players who count cards and win big”; why does she need explaining how card counters operate, if she’s from his world and runs a stable of gamblers. It’s sloppy. And Haddish doesn’t seem like any kind of seasoned businesswoman (credit to her super-long nail extensions, though: my only response during the “touchingly” held final shot).

Schrader was given cause to take a swing at the quality of Clint’s Cry Macho for its out-of-touch sensibilities. A tad rich, given he’s clearly making movies about the same characters he was in the 1970s, only with the “polish” of crude socio-political relevance. The Card Counter’s attempts at depth serve only to emphasise how shallow and artificial the movie is.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.