The Card Counter – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe and Alexander Babara
Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
Length: 111mins

When the phrase, ‘Directed by Paul Schrader’ appears on any cinema screen, there’s a certain sense of dread that can form in a viewer’s mind. Known for his solitary and tormented characters, worlds which seem lacking in any joy, and yet a great awareness of how as humans we can be united – and therefore divided – it’s this harsh edge which has kept the Writer-Director above water in Hollywood for nearly fifty years. 

When it comes to Schraders core themes, ‘The Card Counter’ slots in very easily amongst the rest of his filmography. Oscar Isaac’s lead role as William Tell – a dedicated ex-con who’s developed a talent for Poker during his time behind bars – seems like the kind of man who wouldn’t seem out of place in a police lineup with any of Schrader’s previous characters beside him. This idea of having a self-reflexive solitary protagonist who keeps either a notebook of thoughts, or simply delivers them through voiceover, is a constant theme within Schraders films, and can almost feel at times as the most pure instance of Shrader conversing directly with the audience. It could be easily argued that after implementing this style for so long, it’s become a stale and played-out technique – but within these cold worlds which the director creates, this navigation of thoughts seems necessary as a way to enter the frequently closed-off mind of his leads. 

‘The Card Counter’ makes great use of cinematography and editing within certain areas of the film to deliver moments of extreme impact. Gruelling flashbacks to William Tell’s earlier life within the darkest pits of military intelligence extraction are made ever-more disturbing by a brilliant use of cinematography. Like the opposite of a fish-eye lens, the screen becomes distorted, and yet opens itself up even further to the viewer, ensuring that not a single painful detail is missed. Sadly, it can’t be said that this type of innovation is maintained throughout the film, and often the overtly-precise nature of both the look and style of the modern cameras which Schrader works with, can make a story feel as if it loses its edge slightly – particularly when compared to the dark grain of the directors films throughout the seventies and eighties. It would be harsh to directly compare eras of film which are half a lifetime apart, but there’s just something about classic Schrader films which you can’t help but look for in his later work. ‘The Card Counter’, however, seems to become at times something new within Schrader’s filmography, and whilst there are moments where it succeeds in developing new ideas, the overall aesthetic can, at times, fall easily into the tropes which we expect to see from this director.

In terms of performance, the cast do an all round solid job. Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan build a strong relationship which isn’t always explicitly laid out for the audience – developing a sense of uncertainty which evolves intriguingly as the story plays out. Tiffany Haddish can at times feel out of place and fairly wooden, but the dialogue that she’s delivering doesn’t do much to help her develop an interesting character. It’s this type of inconsistency within Schraders writing which makes his films interesting to watch, but a far cry from the great heights which audiences know he’s been capable of achieving.

‘The Card Counter’ isn’t a film to be entered lightly, and deals with some very heavy topics. However, it encounters these ideas in a way which still feels fresh and exciting, despite them being closely intertwined with Paul Schrader’s classic style. I’d definitely still say that the film is worth a watch, just so long as you know what you’re getting yourself in for.

Death On The Nile – Review

Rating: 12A Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Emma Mackey, Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot. Directed by Kenneth Branagh Written by Michael Green (Screenplay) and Agatha Christie (Novel) Length: 127mins

In the second of Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot adventures, the famous detective finds himself tagging along on the honeymoon of the extremely wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gadot) and her new husband, Simon Doyle (Hammer). Others accompanying the happy couple include Linnet’s godmother, the bride’s former fiancé, a mother and son pairing, and a celebrated jazz singer and her niece as well as Simon’s jealous ex (Mackey), an uninvited but unshakable presence throughout the story…

It’s always tricky to comment on the plot of a movie that is an adaptation from a much loved author, especially one that has been made into film more than once. But to me, this story seems like a bizarre choice. The audience finds itself waiting for a good portion of the story until we  are presented with a murder, up until which point our lead character; a detective, is just awkwardly tagging along to a couples honeymoon party. Once he is released to do what he does best the plot becomes a little more interesting, though to me, the whole case is relatively predictable. 

While I would love to say that Death on the Nile was excellent, it falls slightly flat. The plot, as previously mentioned, accounts for a good portion of that. But also some of the creative choices throughout. The film is long, much longer than it needed to be and the time was used commenting on unusual aspects, for example, Poirot’s moustache gets its own pre-titles origin story, which is considerably more background detail than most of the other characters are afforded.

Some of the acting, however, was fantastic. British breakout star Emma Mackey was truly brilliant. Surrounded by Hollywood A listers, her scorned, possessive Jacqueline de Bellefort stood up to the ranks of those around her, bringing a deeply emotional, interesting performance. While Mackey is the one I chose to mention by name, as per Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, the film is filled with outstanding talent. This talent, and of course Branagh’s direction (which has just seen him nominated for an academy award), is the main draw of the movie. 

This film was a victim of Covid:19 and was due to release originally in early 2020 which means that audiences were left waiting and wanting to see the picture. I think that this can have a negative affect on it’s audiences – keen fans were left building up hopes for this film that may not have reached such heights had the film released when originally planned. It also suffers due to the controversy around several of it’s top billed cast which perhaps leaves a foul taste as people finally get in to watch the film. 

Death on the Nile is ‘fine’. It didn’t blow my mind, I wouldn’t rush to watch it again, but it’s a film that I could see myself re-watching at some point in the future as something to have on in the background. It isn’t as engaging or exciting as Murder on the Orient Express and left me wanting more. 

Jackass Forever – Review

Rating: 18
Cast: Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Dave England, Jason Acuna, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacey and Zack Holmes
Directed by Jeff Tremaine
Written by Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine, Eric Andre, Derrick Beckles, Andrew Weinberg, Colton Dunn, Knate Gwaltney and Sarah Sherman
Length: 96mins

For over two years there’s been a great deal of uncertainty over the future of local cinemas, but now, along with the help of one or two superhero movies, it seems that all was needed to return audiences to the big screen experience was a gang of foolhardy midwestern americans with a penchant for landing without style. ‘Jackass Forever’ may be the first film I’ve seen in a cinema where audiences laugh, groan and flinch in unity, with no other intention than to enjoy these madmen and women taking on increasingly unbelievable stunts.

As a Jackass film, it would be a hard sell for anyone who already knew it wasn’t for them, but there’s so much enjoyment to be gained from watching these group of excitable and carefree friends mess around on a scale that allows them the ability to essentially try out anything they like – a power that in the hands of the likes of Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O results in some mesmerisingly unbelievable footage. Their passion for taking off their clothes in front of the camera as well as their mates comes into its own in this latest film, resulting in some nail-bitingly tense scenes. Like the playground of a child’s imagination, ‘Jackass Forever’ allows its audience to bear witness to (as far as I know) the world’s first triple wedgie, body surfing and underwater farts being set alight. If you’re a zookeeper then you made need a word of warning, any requests from the Jackass guys to make use of your animals could lead to bears eating salmon from an electrified maniac, or a screaming Wee-Man desperately trying to avoid the bite of a falcon’s jaw as it devours the meat from his daringly small thong. It could almost sound as if the group are unkind to these animals, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, in a moment of hilarity, member Dave England proclaims that he’s a vegetarian, right after having been soaked in an unholy amount of pig semen.

Amongst the stunts, pranks, and general hi-jinks, ‘Jackass Forever’ provides a feeling that the group of hard nuts really do care for one another, and on the whole walk away from each inconceivably daring event with a smile on their faces, even when that departure from the set involves a stretcher and a fair few rolls of gauze tape. Aside from the newer – though equally as entertaining additions to the Jackass crew – the gang have been carrying out these wild escapades for a long while now, and know how to put on a good show. No scene throughout the film feels like filler, with each moment coming along at exactly the right time to deliver a new level of excitement, as well as perhaps a new chorus of winces from the audience. To see Johnny and Steve-O up on the big screen is something that a whole generation of Jackass-lovers have never been able to experience before, and now with restrictions lifting more and more, ‘Jackass Forever’ couldn’t have come at a better time to show the world that hanging out with your friends is still as fun as ever.

‘Jackass Forever’ is of course not for the faint of heart, but it’s still a great film to watch if you want to spend ninety minutes lost in a world of high energy madness. Truly, you have no idea what’s going next, and a lot of time neither do the poor souls on screen – but that’s all just part of the fun.

Belfast – Review

Rating: 12A Cast: Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Kenneth Branagh Written by Kenneth Branagh Length: 98mins

 As Belfast starts, beginning in crisp colour and then fading into black and white, we the audience, are transported back to 1969. We are immediately given a glimpse of harmony, a tranquil moment of community and togetherness. This moment of bliss is broken within moments, shattered as petrol bombs and exploding cars hurtle through the previously calm local street. It is within this chaos that we start the story, witnessing the life of a family struggling to pay off old tax debts and wrestling with the choice of whether to stay in Belfast, their home, or move to England for the potential of a safer upbringing for the children. 

The story is explored through the eyes of 9 year old Buddy, it brings an innocence to the world that is presented to us, a world which was the reality for so many, of course. Young Jude Hill, brings such a sweet performance, full of integrity as his character tries to understand the violence that is surrounding his life. Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, playing Ma and Pa, manage to create a really authentic feeling of family. One that truly loves each other, but is frightened, has disagreements and walks the paths of their struggles as one unit despite differing opinions at times. Dench and Hinds bring some of the lighter moments of comedy and an extra layer to to importance of family throughout a frightening and unsettling time. 

It’s a movie of formal beauty, precise performances, complex and textured writing. While the bulk of the story is wrapped up in highly emotional drama, be that of the tensions between aggressive Protestants demanding that the Catholics leave the street (countered, of course, with neighbours who happily lived peacefully despite their differing beliefs) or the rising financial tensions in the home of our focal family; we are still treated to a through line of togetherness, despite all of the highly emotional events that take place in the story.

It’s a movie that seems to pack in an awful lot, while simultaneously maintaining the feeling of ‘just keeping on’. With a focus on people, their relationships and what is important, Branagh manages to still highlight some of the devastating political issues of the past. What keeps a relative lightness throughout the darkness is our young lead, the moments of innocence written in – such as the trip to the cinema to watch ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. The balance that Branagh achieves through both his writing and direction, is really quite brilliant. Neither the light nor the dark can be forgotten throughout this film, you can really sense the truth in its writing, reminding us that while darkness and awful situations descend around us, moments of joy can be found in unexpected situations.   

Belfast is arguably the most personal story Branagh has told to date, written from his own perspective as a child growing up in Northern Ireland. It will have certainly captured the attentions of the awards circuit and I hope that it is enjoyed by many. Although not a film I would necessarily sit down to watch on repeat, it is a valuable audience experience and is worthy of the praise it’s receiving.