Wednesday, August 19, 2015

'Mississippi Grind' Could Be A Hidden Gem

Look at a list of films still to come in 2015, and a number of titles with blockbuster potential jump out at you: Spectre, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, and the seventh Star Wars installation, to name a few. And that's without even getting into some of the award contenders that will trickle out during the fall season. The clutter is familiar, as the final third of the year is usually the busiest for good cinema, and more often than not a few hidden gems tend to get lost in the shuffle. This year, one such gem might just be the road trip gambling flick Mississippi Grind, which is due for a limited release in late September.

Mississippi Grind

Written and directed by the filmmaking couple Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, best known for their collaboration on the critically acclaimed 2006 drama Half Nelson, the movie stars Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn in what looks to be a fairly traditional addiction story. Looking a little deeper, however, there are a few reasons to believe Mississippi Grind could be refreshing in its own way, and perhaps even a surprise hit. Here are some points in its favor.

This Is Ben Mendelsohn's Time

Despite some popularity in Australia and a lengthy career full of appearances in noteworthy projects, Ben Mendelsohn has never really emerged as a big time actor in the U.S. That may be about to change, which makes the timing of a lead role in what could become a popular film pretty interesting. Mendelsohn broke through in a big way earlier this year by stealing the show in the Netflix original drama Bloodline, which also starred more established actors including the likes of Kyle Chandler and Sam Shepard.

As reported by Daily Mail earlier this summer, Mendelsohn scored his first Emmy nomination for his work in Bloodline, and as it turned out that was only the beginning of a busy summer for the actor. Just recently, Hollywood Reporter posted the first photo of the main cast for Star Wars: Rogue One, one of several Star Wars spinoffs being engineered by Disney, and Mendelsohn looks to be a key character alongside Felicity Jones and others. It doesn't get much bigger than that for an emerging actor, and at this point it's only natural to expect Mississippi Grind to be a continuation of his hot streak.

... And Maybe Ryan Reynolds' Too

Ryan Reynolds has had an exceptionally rare and unique career, in that he's gotten more chances than just about any actor out there. For every immensely charming appearance such as his turn in Definitely, Maybe, there's a piece of comedic nonsense like The Change-Up; for every glimpse of true talent like he displayed in Buried, there's a widely panned flop like the recent Self/less; and for every bit of raw, infectious fun like Safe House, there's something like R.I.P.D. that makes you wonder why he hasn't fired his agent yet.

At the end of the day, Reynolds appears to be too much fun for us to quite write off, and it almost makes sense to expect a breakout one day. Moviefone even speculated a year ago as to whether or not the actor could pull off a "Matthew McConaughey-esque Reboot" in the next phase of his career. Really, Reynolds works pretty consistently so it's hard to chop things up into phases, but it feels as if he may be ready for bigger and better things. The trailer for his upcoming Deadpool film (which we posted here) got a lot of people talking, and frankly Reynolds seems perfect for the role. On top of that, the minor but positive early buzz on Mississippi Grind is that Reynolds is terrific. So make that two actors ready for a breakthrough, starring together.

The Gambling Is Old School

Gambling films have always been intriguing to certain audiences, but in recent years the makers of such movies have faced the difficult challenge of catering to younger moviegoers who don't really know poker and casino games the way previous generations did. Where once the words "gambling" and "casino" called to mind velvety tables, bright lights, and smoke-filled rooms, they're now associated just as popularly with major online sites that cater to players all over the world. Even in the U.S., where online gambling is largely illegal, American moviegoers are familiar with online platforms. Betfair's poker site has already journeyed overseas from the U.K. to get a stake in New Jersey (where online gambling is legal). And thus, the appeal of gambling, for many, has already been translated to a sleek, easy, and all-inclusive live online site.

Modern gambling movies have tried to deal with this gradually shifting perception in a few different ways. 21, the blackjack movie about card counting students from M.I.T., seemed to try to make Vegas so grand, beautiful, and sexy that it was irresistible to any generation. Runner Runner, meanwhile, embraced the idea of online poker at the core of its subject matter, but instead of portraying it in a normal fashion, it turned the whole industry into a shady criminal front. From the look of the trailer, Mississippi Grind won't be employing these tricks; instead, it's back to the basics. Mendelsohn and Reynolds appear to be traveling down the Mississippi River region looking for small casinos and back room games, and the ultimate effect is more of a Rounders-ish approach than a modern gimmick. That's probably a good sign, given that Rounders is still one of the most popular gambling films ever made.

Critics Love It

I mentioned some early buzz, and looking at Rotten Tomatoes, it's clear the critics are going to like this movie. Interestingly, most of them refer to it as a road trip movie (as opposed to a poker or gambling one). But they praise the performances and the structure of the film in elevating the familiar premise. The early reviews are a great start for a movie that's starting to look like a hidden gem.