Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent YearMissed this December 2014 crime drama (trailer) in theaters, but finally had a chance to watch it on the small screen. Oscar Isaac, who was quite likable in Inside Llewyn Davis and even stronger here, does a fine job as Abel Morales, head of a New York City heating oil company; Jessica Chastain, always good, plays his wife. Morales’s trucks are being hijacked and his drivers beaten up by—who?—shady competitors, ambitious freelancers, organized crime? With his drivers and sales people at risk, the default of everyone around him is to arm themselves (which makes for some pretty scary scenarios in city traffic), but Morales resists.

He wants to remain an upstanding businessman, to keep taking the high road despite the growing chaos around him. This includes a lengthy and apparently stalled investigation by the city prosecutor (David Oyelowo) of financial sins in the heating oil industry and Morales’s company in particular. Morales is aided in his endeavors by the somewhat ambiguous character of his lawyer (Albert Brooks) who has the patience for long negotiations. As one protracted land acquisition looks about to successfully conclude, the other difficulties piling up put it out of reach again.

What was solid about this movie was that the business dealings seemed plausible and important, not just made up in the usual Hollywood way. The film was written and directed by J. C. Chandor, and in our cynical epoch of anti-heroes, he’s made Morales someone you want to see succeed. “There’s less violence that you would expect, given the film’s title, but the scenes of moral suspense prove just as breathtaking as the episodes of physical jeopardy,” said Jason Best in Movie Talk.

The plot took unexpected turns until the final resolution, and, whatever, viewers have many chances to see the most beautiful (and magically dirt-shedding) camel-hair coat ever!

Nice Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating of 90%; audiences 70%. The film garnered numerous awards and award nominations, as did the acting and directing.