The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)

Paul Schrader is one the cinema’s all-time great dumb guys. The Card Counter features Oscar Isaac as another of his God’s Lonely Men, an ex-con gambler who meets up with a kid and tries to set him on the right path in life. It’s a noir hero conceit: Isaac is a man who did something wrong, once, with a topical flair: the wrong thing he did is torture people at Abu Ghraib. He seems to see in the kid, a young man with an extremely dumb plan played by Tye Sheridan, a chance to atone for his crimes, to put some good back into the world. Though, given the narration he records in his Bressonian journal (Paul Schrader is nothing if not a man who has watched both Diary of a Country Priest AND Pickpocket), he has his doubts whether or not his sins can ever really be expiated. Also he hangs around in casino bars with Tiffany Haddish, who likes him because he’s Oscar Isaac and she’s a woman in a Paul Schrader movie.

Much of the film plays like a variation on Rain Man or The Color of Money, Isaac and Sheridan road tripping from casino to casino, the elder teaching the younger valuable lessons about life while trying to dissuade him from attempting to murder Isaac’s old torture instructor, Willem Dafoe. These scenes, and the gambling bits, are fun and Isaac plays them beautifully, all determinedly sad introversion. The film starts and gets its title from the way he cheats at blackjack, but he spends most of the movie playing poker. Which might be a comment about how his interacting with other people is a fundamental disruption of the balanced and static way he’s rebuilt his life after prison. Or it might just be that someone liked the title, but realized that poker is more cinematic. It doesn’t really matter.

None of it really matters, because like so many Schrader heroes before him, Isaac (and Sheridan) just can’t stop themselves from being dumb. No one in film history has been so obsessed with guys who just cannot chill out and let things go. Schrader’s heroes can’t quit because they see themselves as the center of the universe: their masochistic tortures are rooted in a fundamental narcissism. And Schrader can’t resist depicting them as the doomed romantic heroes they believe themselves to be. So a movie like The Card Counter is filled with wonderful images and sequences (Haddish and Isaac in a park of light; the gray-sheeted emptiness of Isaac’s modified hotel rooms; the horrifyingly woozy distortions of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks) that add up to mere aggrandizement of men who choose to do bad things simply because they refuse not to do them. But Schrader learned from Bresson that if you add just enough inexplicable beauty to your blank, foolish world, some nut will come along and find transcendence in it.

One Night Only (Matt Wu, 2016)

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An Aaron Kwok movie is opening on Seattle Screens for the second time in three weeks, as the now venerable pop star/actor follows up his taciturn performance as the cooly rational police bureaucrat in Cold War 2 with a turn as a compulsive gambler with unresolved family issues in Matt Wu’s One Night Only. It’s the Taiwanese Wu’s directorial debut and also stars his wife, Yang Zishan, who starred in Three actress Zhao Wei’s directorial debut So Young a few years ago, an unrelated sequel to which called Never Gone opened last week at the Pacific Place. Like a lot of debut films, One Night Only is positively bursting with ideas and influences, its a work of exuberant cinephilia, pulling together elements of films as disparate as Nights of Cabiria, Rebel Without a Cause, 2046, One Night in Mongkok, the Fast and the Furious series and what I imagine Nicholas Sparks films are like into a movie that resolutely refuses to simply be one thing, but rather changes shape every reel or so in a way that never quite holds together, but is nonetheless fascinating in its audacity. It recalls last year’s under-the-radar gem of diasporic Chinese cinema, Go Away Mr. Tumor, a film that juggled the demands of the cute CGI rom-com and the cancer melodrama far more successfully than it had any right to. One Night Only doesn’t hang together quite as well, or at all even, but it’s got more energy than almost any movie you’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer.

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