Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Transatlantic Triple Feature

On my flight from France to Philly on Sunday I watched three different movies.

The first was Gravity, a visual effects-laden spectacle of a film for which viewing on a small screen on the back of the seat in front of you isn’t necessarily ideal. But I had my noise-canceling headphones to help me enjoy the effective soundtrack and I was well engaged in from start to finish.

Experimental in some ways, the film does many interesting things throughout both technically with regard to editing, framing, and so on as well as narratively with its limited cast and relatively narrow plot. Sandra Bullock is especially good and George Clooney likewise effective in a smaller role.

It did feel at times like I was watching some sort of role-playing-slash-simulation video game, thereby causing some occasional emotional detachment, but there were some genuinely moving moments, too, that ably reinforced the various thematic suggestions made by the title. A satisfying hour-and-a-half.

From there it was We’re the Millers, the R-rated comedy purposely chosen for the contrast it suggested as a much less intense trifle. Which it was. A few yuks here and there, but pretty forgettable. Both Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston are great comedians, but they’re kind of weirdly cast here.

I was about to shut off the sucker when I scrolled through and saw Runner Runner among the choices, and so despite the preponderance of negative reviews I decided to dial it up to complete the triple feature. Sort of felt obligated to, given its poker connections and attempt to spin a thriller-type plot from the insider cheating scandals and other examples of fraud and corruption from online poker’s first decade.

Not going to give a full-blown review of this one, either, but will make three quick observations about the film.

1. Some effort has been made by proponents of regulated online poker to suggest Runner Runner provides a persuasive argument in favor of their cause. The film is set in what is essentially a pre-Black Friday, anything-goes environment, and thus some have suggested that it helps show the need for regulation as a means to prevent the shenanigans perpetrated by Ben Affleck’s character, the Costa Rica-based online gambling mogul Ivan Block.

Having watched the film, such a reading seems incredibly blinkered. Any clear-headed observer not ensconced within our narrow little world of poker couldn’t possibly view Runner Runner as representing anything positive when it came to our favorite card game.

From the opening montage it demonizes gambling of all kinds, with poker only barely distinguished as a game involving some form of decision-making by players. Sure, it starts out making a banal point that “everybody gambles,” but does nothing thereafter to suggest this truth about human nature is a good thing. To think the film actually supports any kind of gambling (including poker) seems like a crazily convoluted response.

2. I refer to an “opening montage,” but in truth the entire film plays like one long montage with ridiculously short, television-like scenes that feel more like a sequence of YouTube clips than a coherent narrative.

The Rounders guys, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, co-scripted the film, and I see Koppelman on Twitter sharing his “six-second screenwriting lessons.” I almost feel like the editor of this film was observing a similarly abbreviated limit throughout when it came to scene length -- not six seconds, but not much more.

Characters are presented hastily and for the most part aren’t developed at all. Only the main protagonist, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), experiences any kind of change in outlook over the course of the film, a change that is not just obvious but also tedious to watch play out.

3. Justin Timberlake is a talented performer and definitely has some comic instincts that have served him well in other contexts (e.g., SNL, Bad Teacher). But he’s a huge deficit in a drama requiring any sort of real presence.

It was the third movie in a row for me -- and something like 12-14 hours into my day of travel -- but I literally was struggling to keep my eyes open during the predictable, unsatisfying finale.

In other words, kind of like the ending of the Super Bowl.

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