Wonder Woman **½|****

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

After a tease of an appearance in the generally awful Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC has now given Wonder Woman a proper introduction into their Extended Universe with a standalone film that properly honors the principles behind the character even when it’s frustratingly conventional in its execution. While Wonder Woman is obviously groundbreaking as a female-led entry into a movie genre dominated by male protagonists, it feels slavishly devoted to the plot devices and story beats that we’ve seen in better superhero films over the years. Patty Jenkins hasn’t directed a feature since 2003’s Monster and like that masterpiece, she again builds the architecture of the film around a magnetic lead performance from an actress who’s fiercely committed to the material.

The actress in this instance is Gal Gadot, returning in the title role as we learn more about her backstory as Diana on the magical island Themyscira, where she grew up training to become a powerful Amazonian warrior even though her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) warns her of the corrupting nature of war. After World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the coast of their sacred island, Diana saves his life and vows to venture into the mortal realm with him in order to stop the god of war Ares, who she believes to be behind the worldwide conflict. Meanwhile, the nefarious German general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) assists chemical expert Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) in developing a more potent form of mustard gas that’s able to penetrate through the gas masks of Allied soldiers.

What’s most important in a movie that deals with such an iconic figure is that it does justice to the original conception of the character and thankfully, Wonder Woman certainly does not fall short in that category. Her essence is perfectly captured in an excellent Gadot performance filled with a sense of endearing innocence and naïveté but also with an unwavering loyalty to the guiding principles that she feels will make the world a better place for everyone. The original juxtaposition of a character who regards humans with an unbridled sense of empathy and wonder against the backdrop of the ugly trench warfare of WWI that showcases mankind at its most brutal was a brilliant way to conceptualize and in some ways re-contextualize Wonder Woman for the big screen.

While the core concept and conflict remains strong throughout its lengthy runtime, Wonder Woman has basic issues in pacing and plotting that are evident even from the opening scene, which introduces a modern-day framing device that never pays off and then transitions into a sluggish first act that manages to hit just about every trope associated with superhero origin stories. When the action picks up, the fight scenes are generally well managed but the computer generated effects don’t mesh as well as they should and Jenkins makes liberal use of the speed ramping film technique that producer Zack Snyder has done to death in his superhero entries. His influence is also felt throughout the film’s final showdown too, which is a slightly more palatable rehash of the interminable macho beat down present in 2009’s Man of Steel.

Marvel comparisons seem inevitable when discussing superhero movies these days and with its fish-out-of-water story set amongst a World War backdrop, it’s hard not to see echoes of Thor and especially of Captain America: The First Avenger in this DC entry. Plot elements aside, the more vital impact that Marvel has had on this series revolves more around this film’s overall feel and tone, which eschews DC’s predilection for self-serious and dour storytelling in favor of a lighter and more humane touch. Wonder Woman undoubtedly represents a step in the right direction for DC’s universe (though I’m sure I’m in a very limited minority of those who approved of Suicide Squad) and though it has its flaws as a standalone film, at least it strengthens the foundation of a crucial Justice League member.

War Machine *½|****

Brad Pitt in War Machine

Building upon the remarkable success that they’ve had with their original television series, Netflix has recently made a conscious effort to balance their programming with more original movies by releasing new feature films on a weekly basis since the beginning of this year. They’ve had minor triumphs in the form of smaller budget fare like The Discovery and Win It All but David Michôd’s War Machine represents an aggressive play by Netflix to compete against Hollywood and their first-run releases by nabbing one of its biggest stars. It’s a shame, then, that the end product is far from the crowd-pleaser that it should (and could) have been and is instead a would-be satire that’s constantly at odds with what it wants to be and how it wants to convey its message.

Brad Pitt stars as four-star General Glen McMahon (a loose variation on real-life General Stanley McChrystal), who is brought in by the Obama administration to resolve the increasingly tumultuous situation in Afghanistan by promoting counterinsurgency in vulnerable regions of the country. He is closely aided by a staff of men, including the hothead General Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall) and sleazy press advisor Matt Little (Topher Grace), who regard him as a living legend (their favorite nickname for him is “The Glenimal”) and would be happy walking to the ends of the earth if it meant pleasing him. The beats of their quixotic mission are framed in voiceover from a fictionalized Rolling Stone reporter who laments their circumstances and eventually enters the film as a tag along in McMahon’s military entourage.

Of the many miscalculations present in War Machine, the most glaring is the mannered and terribly overdone lead performance by Pitt, which strikes a wrong chord from minute one and only has glimmers of redemption for the remainder of the time. With his cockeyed facial expression and his mouth fixated in an overbite that forms something of a permanent grimace, it seems Pitt wants McMahon to be a sort of larger-than-life buffoon type but it doesn’t jive with the level of respect that his staff seems to show him. The movie also can’t figure out how we’re supposed to feel about this character; if we’re intended to laugh at Pitt’s cartoonish mugging and quirky tics, then why does it so often try to make this a more dramatic personal story about McMahon’s struggles?

The answer to that question, sadly, is brought forth from Michôd’s positively aimless direction, which casts the film in wildly varying lights from scene to scene and doesn’t have the clear vision to pull a satire like this off, much less give us a useful comedy or drama in the meantime. The cheeky opening monologue properly sets the stage for a satire on a certain type of hawkish military mentality but it loses its target early on and is rendered toothless by its lack of focus and by an absence of genuine comic payoffs. Michôd doesn’t know what kind of story he wants to tell us and he doesn’t have any sort of attitude towards the material that could have given the comedy the kind of edge that it needed or the drama the kind of poignancy that it could have discovered.

Even more jarring are the misguided cameos from the likes of talented actors like Tilda Swinton, who is given a one-note role as a pestering new reporter, and Ben Kingsley, who is completely lost in his portrayal as the figurehead Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai. Other actors, like Meg Tilly as McMahon’s wife and Keith Stanfield (who gave another excellent performance earlier this year in Get Out) as a disillusioned Marine, make the most of their small roles and even steal the spotlight from Pitt in the scenes that they share with him. War Machine is about a mismanaged conflict with no clear strategy, so it’s perhaps fitting that the movie turned out to be such a mess but if Netflix wants to go to war with Hollywood, it will need to bring more to the battle than this.

Alien: Covenant **|****

Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is a piece of franchise filmmaking that floats aimlessly in the cold and vast darkness of space, desperately seeking a reason for its own existence. Wedged chronologically between the ponderous Prometheus and the still unimpeachable Alien, it has neither the ambition of the former nor the genuine terror of the latter and further muddies the waters for those diehard fans who may still be thirsty for answers to questions that likely didn’t need to be asked in the first place. Like another recent flop Life, itself a ripoff of the Alien films, it features supposedly smart scientists making dumb decisions that lead them to square off against a creature that’s more frustratingly familiar than fearsome.

Taking place ten years after the events of PrometheusCovenant follows the crew of the titular spaceship as they head towards a habitable planet with a plan for colonization but when they cross paths with a seemingly more suitable planet, their captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides it’s worth an investigation. While on the initial expedition, two crew members come in contact with alien spores that cause a gruesome demise for those infected and imminent danger for the remaining crew by way of newly spawned skittering creatures. After being saved by a mysterious inhabitant (Michael Fassbender), he fills the Covenant group in on the secrets that exist within the ominous new world that they’ve chosen to uncover.

This is Ridley Scott’s third time in the Alien universe and I’d like to believe that he’s returning to these projects for passion above paycheck but there are indications here that he’s more interested in reveling in the glory of his previous successes rather than adding something meaningful to its mythology. He also falls into the increasingly common problem with prequels which involves unnecessarily demystifying aspects of the original work to the degree that their novelty becomes diminished in hindsight. There’s really no need to explain away every facet of how these alien creatures came to be or how they function and deconstructing the nature of their existence makes them less “alien” than they were intended to be in the first place.

Even though Prometheus was also guilty of these sins, at least it was committed to its inquisitiveness with a keen sense of wonder and a human sense of trepidation when exploring the universal questions that have kept mankind at bay for centuries. Aside from an excellent prologue that reunites Fassbender with Prometheus co-star Guy Pearce, Covenant forgoes any existential musing in favor of painfully conventional slasher-inspired horror sequences replete with gratuitous bloodshed and often unconvincing CGI. It’s also difficult to root for a group of seemingly intelligent people who make bafflingly bad choices; I’m no scientist but even I can tell you that setting foot on an uncharted planet without a space suit is probably a poor idea.

Before my screening, my theater played a promising trailer for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, a belated sequel to another Ridley Scott masterpiece that could be counted among my most anticipated movies of the year. Besides a talented cast and a technical team that includes Johann Johannsson and Roger Deakins, the film is being helmed by visionary director Denis Velleneuve, who is looking to capitalize on the success of last year’s breakout hit Arrival. Perhaps it’s time to let another creative voice have control over the Alien franchise as well because if Alien: Covenant is any indication, Scott may have finally run out of story to tell in this sci-fi saga.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ***½|****

Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a game-changing moment for Marvel Studios, when writer/director James Gunn took a ragtag superhero team who didn’t have the notoriety of characters like Iron Man and Captain America and scored larger box office numbers than just about every other comic book movie at the time of its release. While it offered some welcome contributions to the MCU by way of its cheeky humor and offbeat retro soundtrack, it was also saddled with a terribly bland cast of villains and a perfunctory plot that too often got in the way of the fun. Fortunately, Gunn has made good on the promising elements of this predecessor and made a sequel that is not only better than the original but is also one of the most emotionally rich and rewarding movies that Marvel has released so far.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 reunites the titular group as they enlist themselves for interplanetary odd jobs like protecting valuable batteries from being eaten by a giant space squid but when one such mission goes south, they are saved by a mysterious figure who calls himself Ego (Kurt Russell) and claims to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Upon traveling to Ego’s planet (aptly called Ego’s Planet), Quill is excited about the prospect of getting to know the father who was never a part of his childhood, while Drax (Dave Bautista) and Quill’s love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are more apprehensive about their circumstances. Meanwhile, the mouthy raccoon-hybrid Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tiny companion Baby Groot (a high-pitched Vin Diesel) repair the gang’s crashed ship while avoiding the Ravengers led by the menacing Yondu (Michael Rooker).

From a brilliant opening credit scene that is even more playful than that of the original to a poignant conclusion that feels fully earned, Guardians 2 throws plenty (admittedly, too much) out to its audience but delivers with such a high rate of consistency that its excess is often more virtue than vice. Whereas other guargantuan superhero movies have a tendency to ignore certain characters as the plot moves along, Gunn is careful not to turn his back on any of his heroes and is admirably thorough in giving a fleshed-out story arc to each of the five Guardians on top of the new additions to the cast. More importantly, these storylines don’t just correspond with how to get each player from one action setpiece to another; they expand on the emotional foundation laid out by the first film and give us more reason to care about the struggles of these characters.

None of this is to say that Gunn has lost his smart aleck brand of whip-smart humor in the process, as Guardians 2 offers loads of cartoonish visual gags, quotable one-liners and metatextual jokes to also make it one of the funniest films in the MCU lineup. I laughed loud and often throughout the movie, specifically during an extended sequence in which Baby Groot tries to help Rocket and Yondu break out of a prison by enthusiastically fetching various items that he deems critical to their success. In another scene that riffs on the diegetic soundtrack, Ego muses on the lyrics of the ’70s hit “Brandy” by Looking Glass with Quill in a way that would seem incredibly corny for a more conventional drama but in a knowing comedy like this one, the parallels between the song and the story somehow feel both comical and credible.

Beyond the clever writing, Gunn also steps up his directing game and contributes a great deal of visual flair to his space opera with a vibrant palette of neon-infused CG effects at his disposal that make DC’s efforts look even more dismal and drab by comparison. Credit cinematographer Henry Braham for not only providing action scenes that are easy to follow but for his compositional work on simpler shots like a close-up of Quill’s face in a key moment and a wide shot of Gamora sitting solitary admidst a sea of untouched desert. All of these details give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a leg up on the film that introduced these characters first and proves that sequels can correct the errors of an initial entry, especially when more creative control is given to the right people.

Their Finest ***½|****

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Based on the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, this delightful and often brilliant wartime drama stars Gemma Arterton as a Welsh secretary named Catrin who is recruited to be a part of a screenwriting team that specializes in propaganda movies intended to lift England’s spirits during the Battle of Britain. Her co-writer Tom (Sam Clafin) tells her that she was hired to write “slop” (or “girl talk”) to appeal to the female demographic but as she delves deeper into the writing process, it becomes evident that her skills stretch far past writing frivolous dialogue. After following a lead in a news article, she meets a pair of sisters who allegedly saved thousands of soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation and brings the story to her team as the foundation of their new film.

When the script is written, the studio moves forward with production by casting the aging British star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) in the lead role and the handsome American war pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy) as his counterpart, even though the disparity between their acting chops becomes clear once it comes time to shoot the movie. As issues pop up on set, Catrin and Tom are called to fix them with extensive re-writes that keep up on their respective typewriters through all hours of the evening. A playfully combative relationship develops between the two and soon they develop a true affection for one another, even though Catrin appears to be married to a struggling painter named Ellis (Jack Huston) back at home.

For a film that focuses so intently on screenwriters and the integral part that they play in the movie making process, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the biggest strength of Their Finest is the excellent screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, whose previous credits include various BBC series but no feature films prior to this one. She effortlessly weaves all the movie-within-a-movie elements with the personal struggles and triumphs of each character into a script that’s crackling with loads of fresh dialogue (I imagine Catrin would admire it greatly). There are also resonant bits of philosophy about how can cinema affect us, as Tom paraphrases Hitchcock when referring to film as “real life with the boring bits cut out” and speaks to the comforts that films can give us, saying “when bad things happen [in movies], there’s a reason, unlike in life.”

The story is brought to life with wit and charm by a fantastic ensemble cast spearheaded by the lovely Gemma Arterton, who has previously starred in dispiriting dreck like Prince of Persia and Runner Runner but here finds a breakout role that’s worthy of her eminent talent. Her Catrin is smart, sassy and sensitive in equal measure and serves as a protagonist that’s nearly impossible to turn your back on, even when the story calls on her to make difficult decisions on behalf of herself and the studio producing the film. Every bit as excellent is Bill Nighy as the past-his-prime matinee idol who initially has an air of haughtiness that should make him insufferable but instead makes his rascally and unpredictable Ambrose one of the most watchable characters on screen.

The Danish director Lone Scherfig tells this tale with all the whimsy that it deserves but she also doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life during war in a region where air strikes were often a brutal daily occurrence that could claim bystanders at any minute. Prolific film composer Rachel Portman ties the movie together with a plucky and sentimental musical accompaniment that never calls attention to itself, a trait that seems to be diminishing among most of the scores coming out of Hollywood these days. Their Finest is enchanting historical fiction that will give Americans different perspective on the Second World War but it also may give all audiences a brand new reason to fall in love with the movies all over again.

The Circle **|****

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt in The Circle
It seems Hollywood is always a step behind when it comes to addressing our rapid shifts in technological development and this occasionally thought-provoking but narratively inert thriller is a perfect example of that disconnect. The Circle warns of the dangers of digital interconnectivity and full immersion into social media but it takes these concepts to such hyperbolic highs that it feels more alarmist than enlightening. Besides coming across as technologically tone-deaf, the movie also introduces more plot points and storylines than it can possibly keep up with and cuts many of them off with an abrupt ending that’s lazy and unsatisfying.

The story involves a bright young woman named Mae (Emma Watson), who gives up her dead-end job to join The Circle, a nebulous Apple/Facebook/Google-type digital conglomerate headed up by the charismatic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). She soon distinguishes herself among her cohorts (“guppies”, as they’re affectionately titled) and rises up the ranks to become one of the company’s chief creative strategists, pitching ideas to improve their TrueYou platform. After spending more time at The Circle, Mae begins to peel back the picture-perfect corporate culture to reveal darker secrets that lurk under the surface with the help of a mysterious employee played by John Boyega.

Director James Ponsoldt, who’s responsible for winning indie dramas like The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, has a talent for bringing out the intimate and human dimensions in his stories, so it’s no wonder that he’s such a poor match for this material given its preference for machine over man. Save for a pair of performances by Glenne Headly and the recently deceased Bill Paxton as Mae’s parents, the movie is sorely lacking any kind of emotional anchor upon which to tether any kind of techno-paranoia that may develop from the story. Mae’s doting boyfriend Mercer, played with a stunning lack of conviction by Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane, could be seen as the film’s moral backbone if it bothered to take a defined stance on the role technology should play in our day-to-day lives.

Ponsoldt doesn’t get much help from a Dave Eggers-penned script, adapted from his 2013 novel, that introduces far too many plotlines that seem to come out of left field (Mae’s story, for instance, takes a complete 180 around the halfway mark) and negate whatever narrative momentum has already been established. He has so much that he wants to say about how this kind of new technology could affect how we live and yet very few of his points are woven into the story with the kind of cohesion that would make them salient or intriguing. It plays like a half-baked episode of Black Mirror that has all of the neat gadgetry and starring roles figured out but doesn’t have enough new insight on its subject material.

Despite its apparent lack of focus, there are nuggets of inspired concepts buried within the needlessly convoluted story that suggest a more pointed or satirical take on how interact with our plethora of devices. There are visual cues like the slow proliferation of screens at Mae’s desk to the sea of illuminated emblems in an audience enamored with their tablets that subtly remind us just how inundated we are with bright new distractions every day. In the film’s best scene, Mae tells an employee conducting her job interview that her greatest fear is unfulfilled potential and if that’s the case, there’s no doubt that The Circle would have terrified her.

Free Fire ***½|****

Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy in Free Fire
English director Ben Wheatley follows his dreadfully boring and self-serious High-Rise with a film that recaptures the unbridled madness and idiosyncratic style of his previous effort but puts it to much better use this time around. Free Fire recalls the quippy banter of Guy Ritchie fare like Snatch along with the cartoonish violence of Shoot ‘Em Up and hosts an 85-minute wall-to-wall shootout that justifies its runtime with a bracing fusion of absurd comedy and innovative gunplay. Its apt tagline promises “All guns. No control.” and it ably delivers the goods in a wickedly enjoyable package that left me with wide eyes and a goofy smile on my face.

It’s 1978 and an arms deal, brokered by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) between IRA soldier Chris (Cillian Murphy) and flashy gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), is taking place in an abandoned warehouse in Boston. The meeting goes smoothly enough at the outset with members of each party introducing themselves to one another but after a pair of misunderstandings (one business related and one much more personal), the deal goes sour and everyone involved is soon scrambling towards the nearest available firearm and taking cover. Negotiations for the remaining ammo and money play out as characters parlay loudly over the sound of errant bullets whizzing through the air.

Keeping track of the stakes and “who’s who” of Free Fire can be a tricky proposition –one character even admits he doesn’t know who he’s aiming for at one point — but the craftsmanship behind the choreography and camerawork is far from haphazard. Some may fault the claustrophobic cinematography that lacks establishing shots that might better outline the terrain but as these are characters who spontaneously find themselves in a volatile situation, I appreciated that Wheatley tends to keep us in the trenches as opposed to giving us the privilege of bird-eye perspectives. He also isn’t opposed to the occasional visual flourish to give some extra flare, like the point-of-view shot of a crosshair as it’s quickly being raised up to the shooter’s eye.

As much as this film has to offer on the visual side of the coin, the sound design is even more impressive when you break down the technical components of making an action movie like this. Not only do each of the weapons that the characters fire have their own unique sonic properties but the sounds of the competing gunfire create a sort of “chatter” of its own kind apart from the actual dialogue that’s spoken. It’s also important that the words don’t get drown out by the gunplay and the voices have just enough clarity to them while still sounding like they’re being spoken in the natural environment; I imagine most of the lines were recorded with ADR but they don’t have that “vocal booth” sterility to them.

The banter that’s spoken between the members of this all-star cast could have been cheeky or a bit too on-the-nose but the screenplay, written by Wheatley with frequent collaborator Amy Jump, is irreverent and playful in all the right ways. It also doesn’t introduce major contrivances to help move the bare bones narrative along; developments arise naturally from the reckless action (or inaction) of its characters and tension is distilled from the fact that they’re primarily stuck in this one location for the entire incident. Free Fire may not aim high with its cinematic ambitions but as the lean and mean action indie that it is, it does the job exceedingly well.

Personal Shopper **½|****

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas teams up once again with Kristen Stewart for this intermittently tense but frustratingly illusive psychological thriller that mingles in both the very tangible world of high fashion and the equally intangible spirit realm. Personal Shopper is quite the blend of genres — part ghost story, part soul-searching drama, part murder mystery — and Assayas almost manages to pull the concoction off. Unfortunately, the ethereal side of the storytelling offers more tantalizing questions than satisfying answers and doesn’t provide the kind of closure that both the main character and the audience seek.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a lonely young woman who lives in Paris and travels around Europe buying clothes for wealthy supermodels who don’t have the time or inclination to shop for themselves. We find out that Maureen is also grieving the recent death of her twin brother Lewis and, based on a pact they formed before his passing, is using her abilities as a medium to make a connection with him from beyond the grave. While on a business trip, she receives a string of ominous text messages from an unknown number that suggest a sort of otherworldly omnipotence which indicate they could either be from Lewis or a more malevolent force.

Assayas is able to manufacture tension just from the sheer peculiarity of the narrative alone and from the unconventional shifts in tone that may throw some for a loop but may actually be the film’s biggest asset. The sequence in which Maureen initially spars with her mysterious texter during a train ride to London is gripping and insidiously patient as it unfolds in what feels like real time, with the infuriating bouncy ellipses and all. The creepy haunted house scenes like the one that opens the film have an eerie unpredictability to them and actually tend to be spookier than the jump scares of full-blown horror movies.

If the thriller-based sequences make for the most effective portions of the film, then it’s the drawn-out musings on the afterlife and the relationship between the living and the dead that ultimately bring it down. When the mystery plot wraps up, we’re treated to one conversation after another that essentially hits the same beats about the nature of spirit world and doesn’t add to a greater understanding of the characters. It’s as if Assayas had an hour and twenty minutes of a decent movie together and he decided to go on auto-pilot for the final twenty minutes and hoped that the audience either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

Even in the film’s most dubious of choices, Kristen Stewart does her best to pull it all together with another excellent performance of passion and power that further proves that she’s the real deal. Her portrayal of grief and loneliness is one that isolates her from almost all social interactions and yet she still finds ways to make her character more accessible and vulnerable than she has in previous roles. She elevates the flimsy material to such a level that it’s almost worth watching just for her but there’s too many curious missteps in Personal Shopper to give it a full-fledged endorsement.

Win It All ***|****

Jake Johnson in Win It All

Joe Swanberg has been credited as a pioneer of the “mumblecore” movement, which is comprised of lower-budget films that often focus on largely improvised dialogue as opposed to a tightly crafted plot. While his new feature Win It All is more conventionally structured than previous efforts like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, it still retains the hallmarks of the genre by keeping the scope of the story small and by making the dialogue naturalistic and believable. It also stars frequent Swanberg collaborator Jake Johnson (credited as co-writer and co-producer as well), who extends past his typical comedic range and turns in his most compelling performance to date.

Johnson plays the down-on-his-luck gambling addict Eddie Garrett, who spends his days as a parking attendant at Wrigley Field and spends his nights lurking for any underground card games he can find around the city. He seems to catch a break when an acquaintance offers him $10,000 to look after a mysterious duffel bag, provided that Eddie doesn’t open the bag to peruse its contents, while he does jail time for the next 6 months. Going against orders, Eddie takes a look inside and finds $50,000 in cash, which sends his mind racing with how many different ways he can gamble it all away.

After celebrating a successful night of blackjack, Eddie meets a single mother named Eva (Aislinn Derbez) and the two form a relationship that unfolds at a pace that seems leisurely for a wheeler-dealer type like Eddie. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the hilarious Keegan-Michael Key steals all of his scenes as Eddie’s Gamblers Anonymous mentor who doesn’t mince words when dispensing advice to his struggling confidant. Also filling out Eddie’s support system is his brother Ron (Joe Lo Truglio), who’s the head of his own landscaping company and begs Eddie to work for him in an effort to straighten out his path.

Ultimately, the film’s focus is on Eddie and his unwavering compulsion to gamble away every last cent that he has; as another character puts it to him, he’s “addicted to losing”. Swanberg delivers this addiction  with moments of lightheartedness but also with a palpable sense of the stakes at hand, which is made quite literal with a counter that appears intermittently in the bottom right corner which denotes Eddie’s monetary standing (if you hadn’t guessed, it’s frequently a negative number). Even though there are plot points and contrivances that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a gambling movie like this before, the story has an emotional undercurrent of desperation and loneliness that’s undeniable.

Credit to Jake Johnson for creating such an affable deadbeat who always seems like he’s on the edge of throwing away his life and running as far as he can from the problems he’s created for himself. There’s a constant anxiety and unease from his performance that made me feel on edge, along with an unending sorrow that comes across his face during every bad beat that he endures at the poker table. Indeed, there’s so much losing depicted in Win It All that it’s almost ironic how much of a winning formula Swanberg and Johnson have concocted with a movie that feels authentic and oddly endearing.

The Discovery **½|****

Rooney Mara and Jason Segel in The Discovery

Writer/director Charlie McDowell follows up his heady, sci-fi romance drama The One I Love with another film that seems to fit neatly into that very same category. The difference with The Discovery lies in its tantalizing, elevator pitch of a premise: what would happen in a world where the existence of an afterlife was proven scientifically and considered as absolute as gravity? The answer to that question and the multitude of implications that it generates makes for a solid foundation of intrigue as this story’s jumping-off point but McDowell seems to get too lost inside the plot’s machinations to give us any satisfying conclusions to its queries.

The man responsible for the titular revelation is Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), who opens the film by giving a television interview about the enormous impact that his scientific finding has had on a global scale. When asked if he feels even partially guilty for the large uptick in suicides that seem to have been spurred on by the new found guarantee of life after death, he argues that keeping such a discovery from the human race would be more criminal than divulging it. His principled stand on the subject finds a formidable counterpoint by way of a cameraman’s suicide caught live on the air, making Harbor’s stance seem even more calloused than it had before.

Also opposed to Harbor’s approach is his estranged son Will (Jason Segal), who journeys to his father’s estate two years after the discovery to dissuade him from further investigating his afterlife findings. On the ferry trip there, he meets the quirky but disturbed Isla (Rooney Mara) who is secretly planning to commit suicide once she reaches her destination on the island. After Will witnesses her attempt and intervenes, the two join Dr. Harbor and his other son Toby (Jesse Plemons) on their compound as they try to decode the mysteries behind Harbor’s research and prevent any further damage to society.

McDowell has drawn comparisons to Charlie Kaufman before but here, the similarities to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are a bit too close for comfort, especially in the way that both films introduce their central couples. A key difference is that The Discovery‘s examination of Will and Isla’s relationship is much more cursory by comparison, though it is rare to find a film with a more complete portrait of a romantic relationship than that Michel Gondry masterpiece. Still, it’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t spend as much time fleshing out a believeable chemistry between these two as it does positing philosophical quandaries to mentally digest.

Even if the blend of science fiction and melodrama doesn’t quite work in this instance, McDowell and his team do an excellent job of building a bleak world run amok with hopelessness and a quiet devestation that permeates every frame. Without a spiritual anchor and a meaningful way to guide the ship, every character in the story is essentially lost at sea and constantly searching for something new to grasp. If The Discovery had followed through with the promise of its premise, I have no doubt that it could have been a lasting achievement in existential sci-fi but with all of the other distracting elements in play, it’s a frustrating but admirable effort.

My thoughts on the movies