Movie Review: “Mississippi Grind”

Starring
Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton
Director
Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Gambling addiction has been explored to terrific results on film, with two of the finest examples being Robert Altman’s “California Split” and “The Gambler,” both the original film starring James Caan as well as the overlooked Mark Wahlberg-led remake. The tropes of gambling films are well-established, and writing/directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) aren’t afraid to acknowledge those conventions in their newest and deeply human film, “Mississippi Grind.”

At the start of the story, Gerry (Ben Mendlsohn) has already hit rock bottom. The gambling addict has a rightfully bitter ex-wife, a job as a real estate agent that he’s no good at, and he owes money to everybody. His luck quickly changes when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a younger, more charming and luckier fellow. Curtis is a people person, and he wants to help Gerry out, so the two gamblers decide to team up and go on a road trip through the South, hitting up all the big games and casinos together, with Curtis bankrolling Gerry.

This might be Boden and Fleck’s best collaboration to date. Their script is dense yet loose, hugely influenced by Altman’s approach to “California Split.” In fact, the first half of “Mississippi Grind” almost plays out as an unofficial remake of the 1974 film, sharing more than a few character traits and story beats in common. But what could’ve been a recycled, pale imitation of Altman’s film ends up standing on its own. “Mississippi Grind” features fully realized characters, from the film’s stars to the small supporting roles. We get snippets of other gamblers’ lives, whether at the poker table, or in a friendly and seemingly random exchange with Gerry and Curtis, and these discussions create a lived-in, believable atmosphere – one filled with highs and lows, desperation and joy.

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Movie Review: “Starred Up”

Starring
Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend, Peter Ferdinando, Sam Spruell
Director
David Mackenzie

Anyone that watches movies for a living must constantly keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in cinema, but it’s easy for one to slip through the cracks, which is why it’s so exhilarating when a small indie like “Starred Up” comes out of nowhere and knocks you flat on your ass. Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who spent time working as a therapist within the British prison system, the film is scary in just how realistic it feels at times. From the cell block politics, to the crooked authorities supposedly in charge of keeping the peace, “Starred Up” doesn’t pull any punches in its tough and gritty depiction of prison life.

The movie’s title refers to the act of transferring a young offender from a juvenile detention center to an adult penitentiary prematurely, and in the case of 19-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), he’s been relocated two years early due to the frequency and severity of his violent outbursts. When his volatile temper quickly earns him enemies among both the guards and fellow inmates, Eric is approached by a volunteer psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) about attending his anger management class, which he believes will provide hope to the young man that he can someday function normally in society. But while his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who also happens to be doing time in the same prison, encourages him to accept the free help, his constant meddling causes Eric to wonder whether he’s actually there to protect him or contribute to the abuse.

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