Are you into science fiction infused with film noir? Do you enjoy films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception, Dark City and Source Code? Well, Joseph Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor isn’t quite as good as those, but it’s still a welcome addition into stylized 90’s high concept tech retro futurism, given the darkly lit flair of a noir mood-scape. Somewhere in the naughty 90’s, the head scientist (Armin Mueller Stahl) at a research firm has discovered that his advanced software project works a bit too well, and that he’s created a living, breathing virtual reality zone of 1937 Los Angeles where there are consequences to actions and the simulations living there have a rebellious nature. After his untimely murder by an unseen hand, his protege and fellow researcher (Craig Bierko, who does alright but always seems a bit miscast and aloof here) is drawn into a trippy web of intrigue, forced to make the journey into the simulation and search for clues in a hazy, sepia toned LA of the 30’s. Vincent D’Onofrio does double duties as another scientist and a dodgy bartender inside the simulation. Complete with the bumbling, Stetson sporting detective (Dennis Haysbert) and the mysterious, angelic femme fatale (Gretchen Mol), this strives hard to be noir and genuinely does invoke the right feeling, from the feverish, atmospheric lighting of 90’s LA to the production design of the 30’s. Sometimes the muddled elements of romance seem a bit misplaced and awkward, as do a few story elements here and there, but when it works it really works, weaving a thoughtful, twisty narrative that arrives at a reasonably mind blowing conclusion, asking questions about the nature of reality, blurring the lines between soul and software in the best ways. This has been eclipsed by other similar films from that decade, and fair enough as they are admittedly more competent, but I still feel like this is a forgotten gem of sorts and really deserves some love from fans of the several genres it’s composed of. Fun stuff.
John Dahl’s Rounders is the premier poker movie, an utterly charming, never too serious and surprisingly slight look at the lives of several very different individuals whose lives revolve around the game in New York City. The main focus lands on two young men who are fast friends, yet reside on somewhat opposite sides of the responsibility coin. Poker prodigy Mike (Matt Damon) has since given up his art after a soul crushing loss to local russian bigwig Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). He’s content to simmer in solitude with his perky girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, who never fails to convince me that she’s Samantha Mathis until I double check on imdb). Right in time to disrupt his quiet life is cocky street rat Worm (Edward Norton), fresh out of prison and looking for the type of trouble that landed him there in the first place. It’s to long before he’s racked up some serious debt to dangerous people with ties to Teddy KGB, and Mike is forced to come out of retirement and risk everything he has once again, this time for his friend. The poker scenes are staged with meticulous eye for detail and mannerisms in attempt to put you at the same table as the players, and it’s nifty to see each acting style played to the microscopic hilt as Dahl maintains patient focus on his work. Norton is appropriately scuzzy with just a dollop of endearing, scrappy charm and Damon fills the protagonist’s shoes very well. It’s Malkovich, however, who pulls the stops out and is my favourite character of the piece. With a muddy russian accent that rivals his french one from Johnny English, a lazily snarky streak with just a hint of intimidation and a bag of oreos at his side without fail, he’s a hoot, holler and a half as the life of the poker party. Sexy Famke Janssen has as great bit as as shady chick with eyes for Damon and connections with dodgy folks, expertly playing the half sweet and seductive, half menacing game. Watch for topnotch work from John Turturro, Josh Pais, Michael Rispoli, Josh Mostel, Adam Lefevre, David Zayas, Goran Visjnic, Lenny Clarke and Martin Landau in an earnest turn as a kindly professor who looks out for Mike. It’s short, sweet, concisely paced, tightly written, flawlessly acted and wonderfully entertaining stuff.