Reviews: “Win it All,” “Tramps,” “Small Crimes,” “Imperial Dreams,” “Burning Sands,” “Coin Heist,” “Sand Castle”

By | September 14, 2017

People are frequently wondering where the small indies sometimes called “Slice-of-Life” dramas went as they’ve all but disappeared from theaterical distribution. It turns out, “Netflix Original films” aren’t just for shitty Adam Sandler comedies, but also a place to find small films that now struggle to get any theaterical distribution, most of which are actually pretty good…

Win it All…This film about a gambling addict (Jake Johnson, sometimes a more interesting actor than his higher-profile dopple-ganger Oscar Isaacs) who gets offered the chance to babysit a bag full of dirty money is an unexpected winner. [My enthusiasm for watching this was so low beforehand that I almost didn’t.] But maybe it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise given director Joe Swanberg’s gift at working with Johnson on low-key dramedies (“Drinking Buddies”), and an ace supporting cast including Aislinn Derbez as Johnson’s down-to-Earth dreamgirl, and the always-welcome Keegan-Michael Key as his empathetic, hilarious sponsor who can’t quite believe what a fuck up he is even as he tries to help him. You’re rooting for Johnson’s loser to pay off his debts and fly right, and it’s a testament to how good this movie is that even though it ultimately ends on the gambling movie cliche—gambling debts can only be alleviated by…more gambling? like running from a burning building into a crocodile’s mouth—you don’t really care, that’s how much you want a happy ending for these people. Grade: A-

Burning Sands…Gerard McMurray’s feature debut is about the cruel hazing young pledges endure into a black fraternity at a never-named HBCU. “American Crime”‘s Trevor Jackson plays Zurich, our protagonist stand-in, and although he’s sympathetic, he never fully comes to life the way “Moonlight”‘s Trevante Rhodes (as the least cruel of the older frat brothers) does, or McMurray’s own directorial skills, staging scenes like a young David Fincher, you feel a sense of tension and unease that rarely lets up. The film even makes sharp links between fraternity hazing and slavery rituals (mental conditioning, beatings, at one point they’re literally branded). As someone who wouldn’t mind seeing fraternities go the way of the Dodo bird, it’s a valuable addition and offers a different perspective than most. Grade: B+

Sand Castle…Sometimes, a movie does almost everything right…and still doesn’t move you for whatever reason. Once again, British actors like Nicolas Hoult and Henry Cavill are asked to unconvincingly play macho, all-American military types, but it’s a nice twist that obviously Southern Logan Marshall-Green is the least redneck-ish of the soldiers portrayed here. A lot of people may like this thoughtful film (primarily about the efforts to build a water well in enemy-territory Iraq) but others may find it a less compelling hodge-podge of “Whisky Tango Foxtrot,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “Catch 22” (in the beginning, Hoult’s lead deliberately breaks his own hand to keep from shipping out, but the dark comedy aspects are quickly abandoned for something almost painfully earnest). Grade: C+

Imperial Dreams…Once again, a British actor (Star Wars’s John Boyega, this film technically made before that came out) is asked to play a distinctly all-American type: a recently paroled L.A. drug dealer who can’t seem to catch a break as he attempts to rebuild his life, despite everything around him’s best efforts. He can’t stay in government housing because of his record, he can’t get a driver’s license because the state insists he owes child support his ex (an imprisoned Keke Palmer, of all people) never filed for, and about the only person on Earth that wants to give him a job is his drug kingpin uncle. It’s a heart-wrenching set-up, and “Imperial”‘s best moments lie in exploring the different ways a life outside bars is near-impossible for felons and Boyega’s complex family ties (for much of the movie, Boyega and his young son are living in a pitiful car made cheerful with Christmas lights). And even though I really admired the movie’s deep, open-ended empathy—every character is portrayed as real, even tough cops and drug-dealing uncles—there’s an odd lack of urgency to much of what we’re seeing here, particularly in the second half even after Boyega witnesses a murder. Without a somewhat slow structure that doesn’t quite build—the film is less than 90 full minutes, but doesn’t feel like it—you might be looking at one of the greatest crime dramas of 2017, but certainly better than the next movie…Grade: B+

Small Crimes…Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau is the latest posh European actor to play an American tough (sensing a pattern here?) and this time a dirty cop recently released from prison, but in no time at all up to his neck in pre-prison problems. It’s a somewhat familiar set-up, but the best thing about “Small Crimes” is that it isn’t merely glib and shallowly trigger-happy, but a little melancholy around the edges. Waldeau’s cop is said to be a sociopath—certainly everyone around him thinks so, including his fed-up parents—but there’s a moment where not doing the “wrong thing” by killing someone actually winds up getting 10 times as many people killed. If the movie were a little bit better, it might’ve explored this conflict more—both internally for the character or externally for the world all the characters inhabit—but that’s what’s frustrating about “Small Crimes”: it’s always right on the edge of something special, but pulls back. Still, Coster-Waldeau finds a nice way to tweak his Jamie Lannister persona without really tearing it down (this is another sympathetic guy who’s done bad things but doesn’t seem to enjoy them) and Gary Cole is a welcome blast in his few scenes. And no matter what, it’s certainly better than… Grade: C+

Coin Heist…This movie sucks. I guess it’s technically about a bunch of kids in Philly (that looks, acts, and feels suspiciously like Canada) that want to save their embezzled private school by raising 10 million through–and I’m not kidding–hacking into the Mint and printing a rare coin they can sell. And in terms of original heist movie plots, this certainly is, but just like Netflix’s other unconventional teen heist flick “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” this suffers from a weirdly juvenile vibe (one of the “robbers” cares so much about the Winter Formal dance, it feels like an unintentional joke that’s played straight), and doesn’t have half of that film’s style or commitment (whereas that was more “Breaking Bad meets Nickleodeon,” this is like “Degrassi meets Heat”–minus the “Heat”). If something is making me nostalgic for a movie I didn’t like, it’s on the wrong track. Grade: D+

Tramps…Like “Win It All,” this is a film I almost didn’t watch, but I’m so glad I did. It’s a testament to how much faith I put in the low-key charms of Mike Birbiglia (the only actor in this I had heard of before) that I thought if he’s in it, it must have a decent script. Of course, the film’s real center is two stars-on-the-rise Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten (who’s like a fuller-lipped, more sensual Shailene Woodley) who have to locate a missing NYC briefcase with something valuable in it after Turner botches the delivery. To spoil more about this odyssey would ruin it, and that’s especially true since this is the rare film that manages to create spontaneous events that actually feel spontaneous rather than staged. Grade: A-

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