2021 Movie Reviews: The Card Counter and Malignant

A good movie that thinks its a great one and a dumpster fire that is refreshingly self-aware.

The Card Counter

The Card Counter, Paul Schrader‘s latest drama is about as typically depressing and low key as you’d expect from the writer/director that brought us Taxi Driver (with Scorsese), First Reformed and The Last Temptation of Christ (with Scorsese). It recycles some of his greatest tropes like sad man who drinks whiskey and writes in a diary (First Reformed), disturbed individual dealing with the violence around him (Taxi Driver) and of course, self-destructive protagonist incapable of forgiving themselves (every movie Schrader ever wrote or directed). This one follows the self-named William Tell, a quiet but calculating career gambler (Oscar Issac) fresh out of military prison for torturing and humiliating prisoners at Abu Graib. He doesn’t like to talk about it though, that is until a disturbed kid named Kirk with a ‘C’ (Tye Sheridan) waltzes into his life with plans to torture and execute the man who taught both Tell and his own father to torture, who he blames for his father’s suicide. You see, Tell and Cirk’s dad both served together under Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who taught them really fucked up methods of torture. When the news broke and photos got leaked, people like Tell and Cirk’s dad took the fall and Gordo escaped prosecution, becoming a government contractor and traveling around to different conventions giving lectures. Tell feels morally responsible for protecting Cirk, so he decides to take him under his wing and teach him poker, even though Cirk is really only interested in torturing and murdering the man he blames for his father’s suicide. Anyway, along for the ride is comedian Tiffany Haddish as Tell’s manager and possible love interest, who sets up his poker matches.

The Card Counter is an always interesting and exceptionally well acted little thriller, featuring Oscar Issac‘s best performance since Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s a beautifully nuanced and well-calibrated piece of acting that unfortunately, gets buried under a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be. The film is completely at odds with its two storylines – a gambling picture or an anti-war revenge film. The two never fuse together properly and it constantly feels like they’re caught up in a “anything you can do, I can do better” competition, from one scene to the next. There’s several great individual scenes in this and Schrader really does a fine job at capturing the terrifying and dehumanizing insanity of torture and an even better job capturing the glamour-free and mundane world of professional poker, the latter with a sense of ironic humor. The rest of the cast is mostly stellar – Willem Dafoe is wholly believable in his small but important role and Tye Sheridan matches Issac note for note as the quietly monstrous Cirk. The real disappointment here, as much as it pains me to say it, is Tiffany Haddish. All of her line readings seem like she’s on a multi-camera sitcom while everyone around here remains super dialed in. It’s the single most bizarre thing in a movie chock full of oddities. Haddish is absolutely a good actor and a great comedian, I just don’t think Schrader is the best actor’s director and her performance suffers from it. I still think Haddish has it in here to transition into a staple dramatic actress, she just needs to work with a filmmaker who knows how to direct her.

The Card Counter, in a lot of ways, is like Schrader-light, it takes a lot of the ingredients that make his movies pop but removes the calories. If you want a similar movie about a flawed man having a nervous breakdown check out his previous movie, First Reformed, with Ethan Hawke as an alcoholic priest flirting with eco-terrorism. Grade: B (In Theaters)

Malignant

I’ve already said and wrote so much about this in the past week, so I’ll keep this review to a single paragraph. Malignant is maybe the biggest surprise of 2021 because for the first two-thirds of the movie, you’re completely ready to write it off as this generic, derivative and underdeveloped. Then, an hour and fifteen minutes in, a sort of twisted miracle happens. The acting doesn’t get better (it’s pretty lackluster all around, with no actors I even recognize), the stakes don’t really get higher and the story absolutely does not get more coherent. In fact, it takes one of the hardest third-act left turns I’ve ever seen a movie attempt. If this left turn was attempted on a freeway, it would cause a multiple pile-up accident. Writer/director James Wan takes Malignant so far off the fucking rails, it will make your actual jaw drop. Personally, I found the insanity to not be particularly inspired but hilarious to witness all the same. It reminded me of the ridiculous 80s grindhouse horror films of Frank Holofcener (Basket Case Trilogy, Frankenhooker) and Larry Cohen (It’s Alive Trilogy, Q: The Winged Serpent), but with a way bigger budget and wider mainstream audience. I guess you can see this as James Wan bringing the bizarre charm and insane antics of those purely cult films to a wider and certainly more unsuspecting mainstream audience. My parents wandered into this on HBOMax last week and they still have no idea how to process it. I don’t even know if I do. Grade: C+/B-/A+/F

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