Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

Imperial Dreams


The face of urban stress.

The face of urban stress.

(2014) Drama (Super Crispy) John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, De’aundre Bonds, Keke Palmer, Fat Dog, Nora Zehetner, Todd Louiso, Sufe Bradshaw, Maximiliano Hernandez, Anika Noni Rose, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Jernard Burks, Wilfred Lopez, Nik Petcov, Kelita Smith, Zilah Mendoza, Kandiss Edmundson. Directed by Malik Vitthal

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the years since John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boys N the Hood illustrated the agonies and the ecstasies of South Central Los Angeles, little has changed. The choices are few for those restricted by poverty and apathy; selling drugs and using drugs. Getting out of the cycle of violence and poverty has become nearly impossible.

Bambi (Boyega) is boyishly handsome and just home after serving a 28 month stretch for armed robbery. His son Day (the Coach twins) has been staying with his Uncle Shrimp (Plummer) while Bambi’s girlfriend and baby mama Samaara (Palmer) is also in jail for a non-violent crime.

Bambi wants to be a good role model for his son and stay on the straight and narrow. Shrimp has other ideas. He wants Bambi to resume his place in Shrimp’s gang. Bambi would much rather get a job. However, the system is stacked against him; the state has filed for child support on behalf of Samaara, cranking a debt that Bambi can’t pay without a job. He can’t, however, get a job without a driver’s license and he can’t get a driver’s license with that child support debt on his record. It’s beyond Catch-22; it’s Catch-23.

As hard as it is for Bambi to stay straight, the thug life continues to intrude. His cousin Gideon (Bonds) is on the run from a rival gang who mean to murder him and Bambi’s proximity to Gideon is putting both him and Day in danger but Gideon is one of the few who are out to help Bambi make it on the level. Bambi’s mom (Zehetner) is a raging alcoholic and his half-brother Wayne (Akinosho) who has a partial scholarship to Howard’s business school but needs money to make up the difference so he can actually go to college is thinking of taking a short cut that may lead him down the same path that Bambi is trying to get off of. An act of violence puts everything in flux and puts Bambi even more at risk than he has been, leaving him and Day as vulnerable as can be, living out of a car that doesn’t run with a pair of skeptical detectives (Hernandez, Bradshaw) and a social worker (Rose) on Bambi’s back.

This is one of those movies that I really wanted to like a lot more than I ended up doing. Clearly Vitthal has a good eye and ear for inner city drama, and knows how to tell a good story. The trouble is, this is the kind of story that doesn’t really tell us anything new. Particularly in the light of recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and other places around the country, we’re particularly sensitive to the plight of young black men in predominantly African-American communities that are riddled with poverty, crime and drugs. While this story is sadly not one far from the stories of many young African-American men, I get the sense that it has been told more than once and more than once in this very Film Festival.

That said, Boyega (who was tremendous in Attack the Block) has the chops and the looks to be the next Hollywood superstar. In my review of that movie, I compared him to Denzel Washington and certainly he has that kind of charisma and screen presence. Here, in a much more subdued and less obviously heroic role, he struggles with his conscience and his frustration, knowing that the easy way out is to revert back to the old life, but that it would lead him to exactly the same place – if not a cold, steel slab in the morgue.

The rest of the cast are fairly solid, with the Coach twins doing particularly well as Day; the father-son dynamic between the two is genuine and affecting. Very often actors this young have a difficult time bonding with their screen parents but in this case that’s not the case. The heart of this movie is Bambi’s devotion to Day and if we don’t believe that, we don’t believe the movie. That the movie is convincing on that end is admirable.

I take it that the slang being used here is genuine to the time and place; at times I had difficulty figuring out what some of the characters were saying and subtitles would have been genuinely appreciated. While some might write this off as a feature-length rap video (and with some justification), that would be a bit presumptive. This is a solid film by a filmmaker with potential that is dominated by an actor who may well be a great one in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performance by Boyega. Loved the father-son dynamic. Captures the Catch-22 of the modern inner city.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really break any new ground. At times needs subtitles to follow the inner city slang dialogue. A few too many cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and foul language throughout; some drug use and lots of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed at the actual Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Homeless

Doubt


Doubt

Sister Aloysius shows you where her heart would have been if she had one.

(Miramax) Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond, Audrie J. Neenan, Susan Blommaert, Joseph Foster II. Directed by John Patrick Shanley

If one has faith, one must first understand doubt. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, its polar opposite. You cannot have faith if you have doubt…can you?

It is December of 1963 and America is reeling of the Kennedy assassination. Even in the insular world of the parish of St. Nicholas, in the most American of Catholic enclaves (the Bronx), the outside world has crept in. The ramrod straight-spined principal of St. Nicholas is Sister Aloysius (Streep). For her, the world is unchanging, the same as it has ever been. Children are to be watched at all time for they are surely up to no good. Progress is a word to be spoken with the pursed expression of one sucking a lemon. There is only the sureness of faith, the knowledge that what she knows is right and true and that the discipline of her faith will carry her through.

Into this world comes Father Flynn (Hoffman), a boisterous new priest who not only accepts change, he embraces it. With the reforms of the Vatican II conference sweeping through the Church, he is eager to embrace the new progressive Church which seems to be on the verge of making itself more accessible to its flock.

Where Aloysius is stern and disciplined, Flynn is easygoing and charming. The nuns eat in rigid silence, speaking only when spoken to and fearful of the vitriolic wrath of Aloysius. The priests’ meals are boisterous, raucous with laughter and a spot of the hair of the dog. It seems inevitable that Aloysius would take a dim view of Flynn and vice versa. A collision between the two is unavoidable.

When Flynn takes an interest in Donald Miller (Foster), the only African-American child in the school, at first it seems innocent. Aloysius however seizes the opportunity to declare war on her enemy. She commands her nuns to keep an eye on Flynn for untoward behavior and Sister James (Adams), Miller’s teacher and a sweet innocent young thing who is constantly upbraided by Sister Aloysius for being inexperienced and soft on her students, becomes her unexpected accomplice. She notes that Father Flynn calls Miller to the rectory alone one day, and that when the boy returned he seemed upset; further, she detected the smell of alcohol on the boy’s breath.

That is all the ammunition that Sister Aloysius needs. Although even Sister James comes to believe in Father Flynn’s innocence, Aloysius plows on like a bulldozer, sweeping every unwanted explanation from her wake. Father Flynn’s protestations fall on deaf ears. Aloysius contacts the boy’s mother (Davis) to tell her of her suspicions but receives a surprising reaction in one of the film’s best scenes. Sister James has doubt; Sister Aloysius has faith. Which is the stronger?

This is the kind of movie that invites discussion and provokes thought. Non-Catholics will relate to this in a different way than Catholics (like me) will. Faith is a different thing for the Catholics of the early ‘60s. It is, as portrayed by Streep here, an Absolute, a capital letter that brooks no argument.

Shanley wrote this as a play and it won four Tony awards for it’s year-long Broadway run. The problem with converting plays into movies is that they can seem stage-y at times but that isn’t the case here. Shanley, who wrote Moonstruck and directed Joe vs. the Volcano a couple of decades back, creates an environment that is three-dimensional (and I’m not talking about the 3D film process) that is full and real. You can feel the chill of winter and the warmth that comes from the pulpit.

A script this strong deserves a strong cast and it gets it. The four main actors would all get Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for their performances here, and quite frankly they all deserved the statuettes that they didn’t win. Streep delivers one of the most unforgettable performances of her distinguished career as the rigid, inflexible Sister Aloysius; she literally wills her way into being and one can see the iron in her soul throughout. Hoffman is also at his best, creating a priest who is flawed as a man and completely unprepared for the onslaught of Sister Aloysius. Davis, a relative unknown, has but one scene with dialogue in the movie but she holds her own against one of the greatest actors of her generation and delivers a career-making performance. Adams has the kind of role that you would think simply would be overwhelmed by the others in the film, but she delivers the kind of performance that is at the top of her game, making a mousy role stand out in a crowd of lions.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch but keep in mind that this isn’t about whether Father Flynn behaved improperly with young Donald Miller. It is, when all is said and done, about the title – doubt and its lack thereof. Doubt is a necessity; without it we cannot question. If we cannot question, we cannot grow and if we cannot grow, we die. It’s that simple. This is one of the most powerful films of 2008 and is a must-see for everyone who loves films that make you think.

WHY RENT THIS: The contest of wills between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn at the heart of the movie is brilliantly acted by Streep and Hoffman; their confrontations are worth seeing by themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter can be very wrenching and the resolution of the movie might leave some with a bad taste in their mouths.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are very adult and will likely go over the heads of the more innocent sorts. Proceed with caution; the movie raises questions that you may not be prepared to answer right away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film, which is Shanley’s first directorial effort in 18 years, is dedicated to Shanley’s first grade teacher who was the inspiration for Sister James.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a roundtable discussion with the cast on the differences in performing styles and preparation between theater and film, as well as a feature on the Sisters of Charity, the order depicted here and a discussion with several nuns of that order on the changes that swept through it at about the time the movie is set.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hollywoodland