Joe Swanberg has been a staple in the indie film community as a writer, director and actor for the better part of a decade. His pinnacle of success came in the form of Drinking Buddies, a 2013 dramedy in which a pair of brewery co-workers, Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde, wonder if their flirtatious behavior will ever develop into something more. Swanberg makes his return to SXSW this year for the world premiere of his newest collaboration with co-writer and star, Jake Johnson, in the indie dram, Win It All.
Eddie Garrett (Johnson) works odd jobs throughout the week to fund his late night gambling addiction at an illegal basement casino. But when a loan shark from his past returns with a simple proposition, Eddie agrees to watch a duffel bag while he goes to jail for 6 months. However, Eddie's curiosity gets the better of him as he searches through the bag's contents only to discover a huge collection of money. Things go south quickly when he burns through an insurmountable sum of the money and receives a surprising call that the loan shark is getting out of jail early due to a clerical error.
There's humor, tenderness and conviction embroiled all throughout Joe Swanberg's latest work. Jake Johnson is clearly the heart and soul of the feature, and the star of The New Girl delivers with a knockout performance. Addiction is a disease and it becomes painful to witness Eddie Garrett's relapses into darkness, but Johnson does such a fantastic job of creating an affable and kind-hearted character that the audience becomes invested in his quest for a changed lifestyle. Win It All relies on organic humor to keep its story engaging and it does so effectively, even through all of the monotonous casino scenes where we see Eddie experience his ups and downs with the luck of the cards. In conjunction with Jake Johnson's exceptional turn, performances from co-stars Joe Lo Truglio and Aislinn Derbez, who plays Eddie's love interest in the film, can't go unnoticed. It's a complete team effort as Joe Swanberg's direction continues to progress as well, making Win It All a new career best for the indie filmmaker.
Stars: 3 stars out of 4
Giancarlo Esposito may not be a household name, but for millions of Americans and fans of AMC's Breaking Bad all over the globe, he will forever be known as "Gus Fring". Yet, Esposito is far from a one-dimensional artist. His second directing credit belongs to This Is Your Death, another 2017 SXSW selection recently experiencing a world premiere at the festival.
After a deadly rampage is captured live on a reality tv show finale, the network head (Famke Janssen) and show host, Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel), create a twisted new series where people take their own lives on air for the betterment of those they care most about in their lives. But as the fame and success of the show grows wildly out of control, Adam starts to lose a handle on why he wanted to go through with creating the show in the first place.
This Is Your Death begs to unveil a poignant message about the savage nature of our society and our fixation on exploitative reality television. Instead, Esposito's muddled tale goes off the rails with illogical plot points and melodramatic writing. As a filmmaker, Esposito delivers fine direction that's nothing spectacular, but completely adequate. Yet, the character development surrounding host Adam Rogers is both perplexing and drastically artificial. While the fault clearly belongs to co-writers Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel, Josh Duhamel's performance does nothing to improve the situation. Futhermore, Giancarlo Esposito steps out from behind the camera and offers a major supporting turn as well. While his role is executed slightly better than the film's leading star, flawed writing once again tears down this emotional dynamic to the story. Due in large part to an influx of over-dramatization where you're constantly being told how to feel rather than actually being made to do so, This Is Your Death serves as a classic example of when a film's premise far exceeds the overall delivery.
Stars: 1 and a half stars out of 4