The End of the Tour (2015)
Dir. James Ponsoldt
A key literary figure straddling the end of one millennium and the beginning of another, David Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008 left many in and out of the literary community shocked and saddened, both because of his premature death (always a tragedy) and the literary works he left behind, unfinished or never written. At the height of Wallace’s fame and celebrity (i.e., Infinite Jest), writer David Lipsky spent the better part of four days shadowing Wallace for a never published Rolling Stone profile. After Wallace’s death, Lipsky unearthed the raw audio from their time together for a book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.” In turn, playwright Donald Marguelies adapted Lipsky’s book for director James Ponsaldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now). The result, The End of the Tour, essentially a two-character drama centering on the push-pull, contradiction rife relationship between Wallace (Jason Segel, finally stretching beyond one-note comedic roles) and Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg in a very Jesse Eisenberg role [super-smart, prickly, socially awkward]), between subject (Wallace) and Wallace (and the inherent conflict between the two), and between a feted writer (Wallace) elevated to the status of a literary deity and a struggling, relatively unknown fiction writer (Lipsky). Over The Tour’s running time, initial distrust and antagonism gives way to grudging respect and even admiration, Wallace revealing his thoughts on literature, fame/celebrity, and everyday existential questions (and crises) while Lipsky’s sensationalism-tinged agenda, begins to change in the opposite direction.
Mississippi Grind (2015)
Dir. Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Sundance veterans Anna Bolden and Ryan Fleck (Half-Nelson, Sugar) return with their latest, most commercially oriented film, Mississippi Grind, a gritty, grounded gambling drama that unfolds, at least in part, as an unofficial remake of Robert Altman’s underseen, underappreciated poker drama, California Split. Like California Split, a vérité-inspired drama, Bolden and Fleck eschew not just the sets and soundstages typical of Old Hollywood, but purposely avoid the big coastal/gambling cities for the Middle America rarely shown on screen. Opening in Dubuque, Iowa (a cinematic first), Mississippi Grind follows Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a perpetually down-on-his luck gambler and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), an itinerant gambler (of/on men, not games) as they meet over a card game, commiserate over whiskey, and hatch a plan to win big at an illegal card in New Orleans. To get there, Gerry and Curtis take a long, meandering journey, first to St. Louis to expand on their almost non-existent take, then to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Gerry hopes to reconnect with his ex-wife and daughter, and finally to New Orleans. To their credit, Bolden and Fleck never falter in depicting gambling in its varied diverse forms and more importantly, gambling addiction, especially the gambling addict’s fixation with supernatural signs and portents. They push a recurring motif of rainbows (and a link to the ultimate in wish-fulfillment, The Wizard of Oz) well past the metaphorical breaking point. More importantly, Bolden and Fleck give in to the same kind of fantasy wish-fulfillment typical of Hollywood, opting for a commercially oriented third act and ending that feels both forced and unearned (because it’s both).
I Am Michael (2015)
Dir. Justin Kelly
A surprisingly sympathetic take on Michael Glatze (James Franco), the controversial “ex-gay” activist and writer who turned away from the LGBT community to become an anti-gay Christian speaker and pastor, I Am Michael fatally stumbles during an overlong, yet underwritten middle section that focuses on Glatze’s “Road to Damascus” moment, the so-called moment when Paul, one of the early founders of the Christian Church, was struck down, metaphorically and/or otherwise, by a heaven-sent bolt of lightning, in an instant shedding his Hellenic/Roman beliefs for a Christian one. Not that writer-director Justin Kelly (making his feature-length debut), expanding an article written by Benoit Denizet Lewis, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” doesn’t try to exteriorize Glatze’s conversion; he does. Unfortunately, exteriorizing an essentially interior act, already a difficult proposition for even the most talented of filmmakers, seems to be beyond Kelly’s reach. As, at least initially, a document of heady, late ‘90s/early ‘00s San Francisco gay subculture, I Am Michael isn’t a total failure. Kelly also takes explicit pains to detail Glatze’s earlier, complex views on gay identity (he didn’t want sexuality to be the sole arbiter of identity, yet he saw an urgent need to construct and maintain LGBT communities, especially for young men and women).
99 Homes (2014)
Dir. Ramin Bahrani
Already a TIFF 2014 festival and critical favorite, Ramin Bahrani’s (Man Push Cart) latest film, 99 Homes, incisively narrativizes and personalizes the 2008 economic crash, the Great Recession, by another name. Caused by overlapping economic crises in the mortgage and financial industries, tens of thousands, if not millions of homeowners, found themselves jobless, their mortgages underwater, impossible-to-pay balloon payments, and skyrocketing interest rates. For everyone lucky enough to be untouched by the mortgage/economic crises, they saw abstract numbers, not the people behind those numbers. Turning the abstract into the concrete (and real), 99 Homes centers on Dennis Nash (a never better Andrew Garfield), a construction worker who loses his family home to an unscrupulous real estate broker, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, surprisingly muted), the Devil to Nash’s Faust. Desperate for work to support his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and his preteen son, Conner (Noah Lomax), Nash does what almost any desperate man would do: He follows the work, initially leading a cleanup crew, before graduating to Carver’s right-hand man, the face soon-to-be-evicted homeowners see before they’re unceremoniously thrown out into the street. As much a study in the corrupting influence of money and power as a study in an individual crisis of faith, 99 Homes unfolds with the tautness of a suspense thriller, Nash’s integrity or to put it more metaphorically (and spiritually), soul hanging in the balance.