Skip to main content

I stick to modest goals.

The Card Counter
(2021)

(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

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

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.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…