Two films by talented young directors that both utilize characters who have to battle their surroundings, their difficult pasts and themselves. Mississippi Grind, another quality film from studio A24, and A Brilliant Young Mind give us two hard looks at life but both end with upbeat and well deserved happy endings. Click through for my full reviews of these two small indies you should see.
Gambling films are extremely difficult to pull off. Last year there was the horrible, The Gambler starring a skinny Mark Wahlberg. This year's gambling film actually touches on the real qualities of the people and places. It is a film that does have a rather slow pace, but that step-by-step grind is part of the beauty of the film. I'm not sure if there are handsome fellas like Ryan Reyonlds out there, but there sure are people like Ben Mendelsohn's Gerry. The character of Gerry, "is a talented but down-on-his-luck gambler whose fortunes begin to change when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a younger, highly charismatic poker player." (From A24 website)
That plan is as crazy as it sounds and of course Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden take us down that tough road. There is a constant metaphor of a rainbow and the mystery pot of gold at the end that bookends the film nicely. The more sympathy you gain for the failing Gerry the more you comes to term with his ultimate lack of success. The film doesn't try and "educate" us on poker like in Rounders, but rather allows us to see the grimy world in which gamblers roam. We see the smoke filled rooms with dirty bourbon stains and yet pristine playing cards and dice in the casinos, boats and halls the gents travel to on their journey. The money is in the gambling and that is all. Ryan Fleck's character is a rather unique fella in that he seems to be the only out of placed figure. Sorta like a better dressed Woody Harrelson from White Men Can't Jump (another "gambling" film if you will). Fleck's story is an enigma and minus a brief scene with his lounge singer mother we never understand who he is and why he helped Gerry in the first place. Gerry on the other hand is worth watching. He's real, he's believable and that is why his tragic nature is so watchable. We know what's coming, but Fleck and Boden give us something quite amazing at the end. An unexpected treat of a final act make Mississippi Grind into one of the better gambling films since the 70's hey day of such down and out films were made. Two young directors to keep an eye on for sure and working with a bold studio that doesn't mind looking into the heart of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana for it's story.
At the Dallas International Film Festival 2014 A Brilliant Young Mind surprised many with it's poignant and honest look at a young math genius who struggles to figure out love. The film was called X + Y and was Director's Morgan Matthews fictionalized version of his earlier documentary about a young teen program for elite math genius and the competition they enter in. Asa Butterfield takes over the lead role as Nathan and fits in beautifully. Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan round out the adult cast and two young actress played by Jo Yang & Alexa Davies vie for Nathan's love. Overall a heart warming even difficult film to watch as we see the hardships of how alienating being smart can be, even amongst fellow smart kids.
Though Asa Butterfield is brilliant in the film, Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins really steal every scene. Rafe's character of Martin is a failed math genius who's last hope is to see Nathan succeed, while Hawkins sad single mother to Nathan has to fight for her son's lack of affection, the horrible memories of losing her husband to a car accident and the confusing potential relationship that is created with Martin's constant place in Nathan's life. Overall their love story is as rich and rewarding at the adorable and more innocent courtships that Nathan goes through with Jo Yang's Zhang Mei. Amongst all this love stuff is the very tense world of the International Mathematics Olympiad the extremely prestigious competition that puts all of these characters together. Eddie Marsan shines as the British coach and the one out of now where character that steals every scene. That added sense of fun with Marsan's Richard is another added bonus to this rather gripping film of young love. Director Morgan Matthews has given us a real treat of a film that deserves your time.
As much care as Morgan has for his actors and the real life figures they represent so to does he have for his filmmaking. The cinematography is really impressive, especially the focus on bright colors and blinking images that show off the similarities and differences of England and Taiwan. But the real treat of the film is Morgan's choice in music. Music by Martin Phipps utilizes one particular musician that you need to get to know, Keaton Henson. His beautiful soulful voice is the quiet refrain that brings all of the beauty to this film into one magical movie.