Mississippi Grind 2015 ****

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Ryan Reynolds has put his snark to good use as Deadpool; it’s a little frustrating that he’s using the same mannerisms for everything from Detective Pikachu to Fast and Furious, because he can play straight just as well. Similarly, Ben Mendelsohn is a terrific actor who has been typecast as a baddie in Ready Player One, Rogue One and Robin Hood; both of them need to be a bit more creatively cast. Writers and director Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck provide proof of concept that both men have the chops to do great work with Mississippi Grind, a downbeat but hugely impressive character study of who men under the narcotic grip of gambling. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a poker player who imagines that hanging out with the younger, better-looking Curtis (Reynolds) might change his luck; he’s right in a way, but not the way he imagines. Both men are weak; a key dialogue scene hinges on their willingness to place a bet on something as random as the appearance of the next person to walk into a room. Robert Altman’s California Split was an inspiration, but Mississippi Grind has an energy and a loucheness all of its own; if you’ve only seen these actors paying the rent in blockbusters, it’s something of a revelation to see what they can do in a small-scale drama like this.

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Ready Player One 2018 ****

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Steven Spielberg wisely junked most of the details from Zak Penn’s novel about a futuristic video-game and came up with a rather more eye-boggling set of conceits. Tye Sheridan plays Parzival, a young games who takes part in a virtual scavenger hunt for clues left by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a pioneering gamer who invented the OASIS, a shared virtual-reality universe for gamers where a series of breadcrumb clues have been left. Parzival’s real battle is with Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who is keen to stop anyone else getting in control of this particular matrix. With many unreal concepts to deal with, Spielberg just about manages to make the convoluted drama of Ready Player One seem real; the best sequence is a trip to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, which reduces the original to a ghost train ride, but still provides a genuine frisson. Cameos about, from the Back to The Future DeLorean to King Kong, and there’s always something going on visually to amuse. Unfortunately Rylance’s miscasting in a role that would have worked better with Gene Wilder robs the film of any genuine sentiment or warmth, but as a showcase for CGI, this is one hell of a toy-box mash-up.