The two films today are strong on drama and we’re first screened at Festivals this year. The Schrader was shown at Venice, while the Chon went to Cannes – both were well-received.
The Card Counter (video on demand) – After his First Reformed with Ethan Hawke was so widely praised, some actually thought that the film would be Paul Schrader’s swan song. But thankfully for us, Schrader is far from hanging up his writing and directing caps. This film takes place in the insular world of gambling, our main character Will Tell (Oscar Isaac), is one of those who criss-cross the country, trying to stay below the radar, and making a living from professional gambling – making the distinction that he hates celebrity gambling, and thinks that’s an outright circus. It’s in the course of his traveling and us following him as he checks into motels that we discern the kind of psychological depth the man must possess, as he habitually wraps all the furniture in his rooms to turn them into a monochromatic environment.
Beyond the pun on his name, given he’s in the world of poker and blackjack, Tell is given the episodic flashbacks and narration that allows us into his tortured psyche. Turns out he was part of an elite squad in Iraq that tortured prisoners for information. Tiffany Haddish as Lelinda, who manages a stable of card players is one of the more interesting characters we encounter, as is Tye Sheridan, who plays the son of a man who committed suicide, and used to ‘work’ with Tell. Willem Dafoe plays their former commanding officer, who’s now doing a casino circuit as a security expert. While it’s a slow burn kind of film, Schrader carefully tightens the screws, as the narrative becomes one of revenge and retribution, as Tell attempts to exorcise the demons that possess him. More psychological drama than just a film about gambling.
Blue Bayou (video on demand) – Justin Chon is of Korean descent but was born and raised in the USA. Because of his looks though, he’s often mistaken for an immigrant, or asked where he’s from, a situation he shares with the character he portrays in this film, Antonio LeBlanc, from New Orleans. Chon wrote, directs, and stars in this film, and it puts a spotlight on the plight of so many Asian-Americans and African-Americans who were adopted at a very young age, brought to the United States by well-meaning Caucasians, but were never properly documented. So when they reach the age of majority, or even in their 30’s, when they crop up in the system, they’re regarded as illegal aliens and deported. It’s a sad plight for these technical Americans, and it’s not even their fault.
When we meet Antonio, he’s struggling as a tattoo artist, living in with a pregnant Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and her daughter from a previous relationship. Unfortunately for Antonio, that previous relationship is a police officer who abandoned his daughter, and is now reaching out to forge a relationship. Chon as a writer and director is far from subtle, he’s angry for the light of these adopted Americans and it shows via the melodramatic narrative and heavy-handed use of visual symbols. If Chona’s face touches a nerve of familiarity, he was in the Twilight series as a young teenager. Vikander puts in one of her more impressive dramatic performances here, playing a Southern American girl – a far cry from her Swedish provenance. It’s a moving film, and I dare you to watch until the end and not feel tears forming in the corner of your eyes.