THE CARD COUNTER
Paul Schrader wrote and directed this intensely involving drama, which was produced by Martin Scorsese.
Schrader, best known as the writer of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” also wrote “Affliction” (James Coburn was an Oscar winner) and wrote and directed the critically acclaimed “First Reformed” starring Ethan Hawke in 2017.
Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, a quirky gambler who travels the circuit and consistently wins amounts that do not elicit notice from the casino owners. He counts cards in Blackjack and has a winning formula for poker.
Tell, who spent years in a federal prison, meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan) and convinces the younger man to accompany him on his gambling route.
The other major players in “The Card Counter” are La Linda, played by Tiffany Haddish, and Willem Dafoe as Major John Gordo, a former U.S. contractor at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
As a PFC in the Army, Tell was assigned to Abu Ghraib. His nightmares reimagine the Iraqi prison’s horrors. Shot with a wide lens, the film’s torture sequences exhibit horrific attacks by police dogs and waterboarding.
As with all of Schrader’s films, his script for “The Card Counter” has many layers. A gambling story in tandem with the guilt-ridden memories of a disgraced military man, the film also ties in a bit of romance between Tell and La Linda. Searching for some kind of redemption, Tell tries to convince Cirk to drop his plans for revenge.
After showing the Abu Ghraib horrors, the filmmakers give mercy to the viewer by allowing a bloody confrontation to take place off screen.
SMALL ENGINE REPAIR
Ten years ago, playwright John Pollono’s one-act play titled “Small Engine Repair” made its debut and eventually ran in an Off-Broadway theater.
Pollono expanded the mega-dark comedy by creating a clever backstory for the main characters in order to complete a feature-length film.
Set in Manchester, New Hampshire, the compelling movie begins as Frank Romano (John Pollono) returns from prison.
His lifetime friends, Terrance Swaino (Jon Berthal) and Packie Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) bring him his baby daughter, Crystal.
Flashbacks show the guys as youngsters, and we have glimpses of Crystal’s early years as well. A decade and a half later, the three buddies get together for a celebration of teenager Crystal’s exiting news about her acceptance to UCLA.
Despite their tough guy attitudes and shocking profanity, the fellows all care deeply for Crystal (Ciara Bravo). But that night is complicated by the arrival of Crystal’s mother Karen Delgado (Jordana Spiro) and a incident at a local bar.
Swaino, Hanrahan and the hot-tempered Romano break off their friendship. But the guys reunite after three months when Romano invites them over, gives them lots of booze and asks for their help in an act of vengeance.
While continuing its black comedy aspect, the film takes some ugly surprise dramatic twists.
Pollono shines as an actor, writer and director. Each of the characters seem real in this disturbing adults-only film.
Alice Reese is a member of the Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics Association. She reviews movies, arts and entertainment for the Herald-Banner and for KETR.