Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

Cali Split Miss Grind What does it take for a film to be “original”? Well the easiest way to do it is to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. This approach is not ideal, it praises newness over excellence, it praises pioneering spirit over actually being good at your craft, and beyond that, it’s very very difficult with the weight of thousands of years of human history on our backs to tell a new story, when so many have come before us. So what do you do with two films, one of them part of a wave of 70s classic gambling films (the script for California Split was inspired by the screenwriter’s Joseph Walsh real struggles with gambling), and another one made 40 years later, which owes such a considerable debt to the first one it might as well have written “Inspired by California Split” on its cover? Do you crudely write off one as a pale imitation of the other, because you’re so keen to stress your plethora of film knowledge?

No. California Split (1974, Dir. Robert Altman) and Mississippi Grind (2015, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) are films which share the same DNA, drawing from the same well of gambling loose cannons in the underside of society. It’s locations, events work in tandem with each other, and each film is enhanced by knowledge of the other. But like most things in life, they’re fundamentally the same and fundamentally different all at the same time.

RISK

Gambling is this weird phenomenon, wrapped up in desire, skill and the most ethereal of all traits, luck. And while the art of gambling is held up as a symbol of vice and dangerous living, it’s inhabitants are largely the people you see around you. Both films are filled with “common folk”, the kind of people who keep the world running, they’re not big heroes with big dreams, they gamble because to win is their dream. Both films chart the journey of two gamblers on a knife’s edge of winning and losing, and their obsession with both leads them to chase their own tails to a self-destructive extent. Both of these films understand that common people can’t be “heroes”, at least not indefinitely. Sooner or later, everyone bows to reality’s crushing weight. The protagonists of California Split win more money than they could ever need, and yet Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliot Gould) are left feeling empty, their flight taking them so high they don’t know how to get back down to Earth.

And our protagonists in Mississippi Grind operate much the same, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) after pushing themselves to the point of self annihilation, with nothing left to lose, catapult themselves skyward into financial heaven, over half a million dollars of it. And yet both of them are left listless afterwards, temporarily contented but also untethered to everything that held them onto Earth for so long, getting the money they needed. And Mississippi Grind’s frankly beautiful last shot, which has the American flag reflected off of the windshield of Gerry’s car as he sits in it, pushing himself upwards to a more secure position, provoked in me the question of “If the American Dream (and the dream of most capitalist society) is the pursuit of wealth as a way to happiness, what happens when you win? Where do you go from there? When your dreams are realised, what’s left?”

All this is me interpreting the thematic cores of these films, so obviously it all must be taken with a grain of salt. But for two films obsessed with those endless games of risk and reward, and those who play them, both seem to land on the idea that really does make sense, that money is a pathway to happiness because it opens your horizons, and the rush of obtaining it is so compulsive it can consume you. But ultimately, it’s also only as good as what you do with it, because money is a tool, not the end goal. Sooner or later you have to jump off the merry-go-round, either because you’re gonna be sick or it’s just not fun anymore. Money doesn’t fix the holes in their hearts, the flaws in their character, it’s just a tool you use to live, and how you choose to live and what you live for is up to you, regardless of how much money you have.

REWARD

Both films are incredibly interesting experiences. Altman’s direction here on a story which has less grandiose notions than more of his well-known work, is just such a cinematic treat to take in.  The dialogue of a real world, conversations overlapping and forcing you to follow and pay attention, are just so seamlessly crafted it’s easy to forget they’re rehearsed. The roving camerawork by Paul Lohmann, a camera possessed by constant motion, forever tracking in or out of its settings just translate the restlessness of a gambler’s world better than any expository dialogue ever could.  The performances are charismatic, inviting and a lot of them, driven by a hidden pain only ever glimpsed, never fully seen. Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles) play two  prostitutes are perhaps the unsung heroes of the film, women who do their best to maintain their dignity and their hope, despite the cruelties inherent in their job. The visual and aural elements show their age, but Altman was master of his environment and craft like that doesn’t fade easily.

Mississippi Grind too, in its own (similar but different) way has excellence bursting through it. The performances, mirroring those of its predecessors, are channeling them and yet bringing their own unique and intimate performances to them. Their subtleties affect you, provoking emotions without being overwhelmed by showy overdramatic performances. The camerawork too, while more static, is rich with lush colour schemes and moments of visual composition which just bounce off the screen. It’s soundtrack, brimming with Delta blues and music of the south, is rich and muddy, just like it’s characters. The point I’m trying to get across here is that both films are incredibly well crafted, those elements which make up a film are refined and cultivated in such a way to make two different styles work for the same story, and regardless of your interest in its story, the technical elements of both films are a delight to behold.

RESURRECTION

Depending on your view, Mississippi Grind is a homage, a rip-off, or nothing more than a cheap copy of California Split. But fuck that thinking, both films are resurrections of the ideas of gambling which get subsumed into the glamour and the frenetic chaos of its image. Luxurious casinos and the dreams of walking out with millions are the things which draw in people’s lives, their time and their money, all for the chance to win or lose. It’s fascinating to me that the message in these films, that the limbo space in between winning and losing, when both the joy and the fear are contained in the same body at the same time, is the most crucial thing in a gambler’s life. The money is only a marker of success, not the whole story. The thrill comes in the competition, and as the stakes get higher so does the terrifying reckoning with the burgeoning of your dreams, or the crushing of them. Gamblers are dreamers, cynical or idealistic, they dream. And both films do what great films do, communicate dreams.

-Alex

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Risk, Reward and Resurrection: California Split and Mississippi Grind

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope

rogue-one

We’re back at it again with the films, after a temporary and unannounced hiatus. I’m a little rusty, so you’ll just have to bear with me.

Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story (2016), directed by Gareth Edwards (who depending on your familiarity with cinema, is either famous for making Monsters or for making Godzilla) was not a film I was in any way acquainted with before watching it.I did not like Godzilla (2014), although I appreciated a lot of its aspects. So with my expectations vague and largely absent, and from my previous experience with the over-hyped, under-baked Episode VII (see thoughts here),  I went to a midnight screening on the 14th of December, in IMAX with company.

And in a truly ironic fashion, it was the Star Wars film I had been (mostly) hoping for since last year. A piece which actually told a story that wasn’t just a rehashing of what had come before. Instead of a recycled New Hope, what we got was a film which did as much as it could and possibly more inside the restraints it was under, namely the baggage of being part of the Disney monolith. It manages to carve itself just enough of a niche to feel fresh and distinct, both from the Star Wars saga, and as a film in general.

Spoilers.

Based off of a few lines in the original 1977 film, the story of Rogue One explains how the rebels got ahold of the plans to the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) plays the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who designs the flaw in the superweapon which is exploited at the crux of the original film. Familiarity with the original Star Wars is needed to really understand the weight of Rogue One, but at this point its difficult to scour the Western world to find people not already familiar in some way with George Lucas’ original space opera.

So Jyn plays out her story, that of the abandoned daughter looking for her father, and the grand story, that of her teaming up with a rag-tag crew of rebels to steal the plans from the Death Star. The characters are honestly very strong, each one (or more often duo), is genuinely well-rounded and three-dimensional, and the very real interactions between them all makes for a film about camaraderie, even if Jyn is our anchor that everything else orbits around. Unlike Episode VII, which wanted to put the focus on the three key individuals, Finn, Rey and Kylo, this film is more than content to allow everyone their own piece of the pie. The characters in this really feel like soldiers in a war, and it has to be the case, since a large part of it involves the darkness of being expendable warriors in a galactic battle. How do you make a story that’s so small in the grand scheme of things feel so big? By creating characters who you care for. And I’m not usually one to go on about British actors, but seeing Riz Ahmed up there, such a world away from Four Lions (2010) really made me happy in a film nerd way. Also Simon Farnaby from Horrible Histories and The Mighty Boosh had the tiniest cameo and I loved it. But enough about British people.

On the other side of this, lays the machinations of Director Krennic (played by one of my favourites, Ben Mendelsohn) and him against both the rebels and the dangers of his higher-ups, a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (since Peter Cushing is dead which I did not know going into this and so did not realise his entire performance was CGI) and of course, Lord Vader.  While some dialogue on both sides sometimes veers towards the cringe and on-the-nose,  most of the films’ characters manage to chart a course between the stereotypes of action movies and the dangers of just being compared to the gigantic toybox of previous Star Wars characters..

It’s difficult to talk about some of its good aspects, because with a production this expensive and no doubt highly scrutinised, they’re all to be expected. The production and sets are incredibly elaborate, no expense spared and as a result the world just looks gorgeous, half of it digitised to such a high watermark that it really does look beautiful. The cinematography as well, follows in the District 9 (2009) vein, pushing us close into the action, right smack bang in the middle of the conflicts, and as result the battle sequences take on an incredibly powerful and taught tension. The ending sequence in particular, a battle on an idyllic beach world reminiscent of WWII Japanese beach warfare and the jungles of Vietnam is the best example of this, but there’s another absolutely brilliant scene of a rebel ground attack on some stormtroopers, and our heroes stuck in-between which really nails you into the fight. The sound design must rightfully take credit for that too, since its dense, very well layered texture weaves the world into being, especially with a movie saga with such a distinct audio aesthetic.

If anything, what I really want to talk about is how impressed I am with this film’s ability to mine the Star Wars of old, without just giving it a new coat of paint as Episode VII fell victim to. It’s fan service is weaved into the film so that if you don’t follow the canon in-depth, you can still follow the film. Subtle (and not so subtle) nods are jacked into the film, allowing those with the knowledge to perk up and recognise them (a great replication of the rebel sitting in the little tower at the rebel base made me smile), while those who aren’t as familiar will just ingest it as world detail. For all those reviews talking about it being a Star Wars film for the fans (well the one I found) ,  it simply just provides its fan service more organically and subtly than the previous carnival show.

So if the film isn’t another New Hope as the title suggests, well what is it? Well its a lot of things, elements of comedy, heist, personal revenge, family drama, corporate drama, I could go on. I think at its heart its a film about what causes us to sacrifice for our ideals beyond ourselves. It’s also a film which is broaching the technical forefront of the world we live in (resurrecting actors from the dead only continues to blur the boundaries of life and death) and the VFX in the film is extensive, as CGI only continues to get ever more realistic and grandiose in scope. In 10 years we can look back on Rogue One and see how far we’ve come. It’s cast as well, draws from all sides of the human spectrum, and the inclusion of Asian actors in a time when the cinematic market is shifting to a more global revenue shouldn’t be ignored, especially when they are made to be an integral part of the film, rather than a tacky add-on to shamelessly appeal to what the West would deem ‘foreign markets’.

Again, it’s that same core of humanity which drives this film, the humanity of relationships and power and friend and foe. The reason Star Wars is so powerful is that it taps into those great myths and stories we’ve been telling ourselves throughout the centuries, and when done right, a story which felt small in the original Star Wars, only given a few lines of exposition to explain how Luke could triumph, can feel gigantic and monumental in its importance. And that’s what I loved about this movie, is that it made the story on the ground feel big. It acts a memorial to their fictional sacrifice, and the wellspring that it draws that from is embedded in the millions of souls who have fought in battles across history.

Also there’s a bit in it where a ship crashes into another ship which causes it to crash into another ship which then breaks the magic gate which is preventing them from succeeding and its fantastic. And there’s a bit with a blind monk which draws on all those old Japanese movie clichés and it just was great. Go see it.

-Alex

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope