The amount of work I’d have to do to get all these reviews fully fleshed out before I have to leave for Venom: Let there be Carnage is gargantuan – love that word, so rarely get to use it in a sentence – and nobody went to see any of these movies anyway, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is still the no. 1 movie in the world somehow, so I’m going to cut myself some slack and just spit these out-
4/10 Malignant is a wet, sloppy mess of a movie, and I would never call it good, but it brings me joy.
There are at least three different movies’ worth of ideas that have been jammed into Malignant like a college laundry bin to varying degrees of effectiveness and with varying degrees of intelligence. At different points, it seems like send-ups of turn-of-the-century Japanese horror and Italian pulp films from the ‘60s. It also flips between a standard, bland James Wan horror film and a hyper-stylized horror/action flick with tons of gore. They’ve got that great scene transition that’s the center of one of the movie’s gimmicks, they’ve got some bizarrely wide lenses that give everything a unique look, and there’s some absolutely outrageous set designs to take in as well.
Gabriel in particular is obviously several ideas at once – they’ve conflated the concepts of cancers, teratomas and conjoined twins, which are all completely different things medically, and none of them would explain how he has electricity powers or how he’s also a bulletproof ninja. They even have multiple competing scenes revealing all these things, so it looks less like a movie and more like three very similar short scripts that have been spliced together.
I like a movie that swings wildly for the fences even when it misses, and I like an aggressive villain. A lot of horror movies start artificially slowly, but Gabriel is never waiting on anything. He’s an in-your-face threat from the get-go.
A lot of story writer/director/producer James Wan’s movies feel mostly like nothing is happening, and Malignant’s wild swing in the opposite direction is a welcome surprise, even when it feels like such a coked-up mess.
The Card Counter
9/10 The Card Counter is a marvelous slow-burn exploration of masculine isolation in the tradition of Taxi Driver, which is of course no surprise from writer/director Paul Schrader, who, 45 years and 30 movies later, is still primarily known as the writer of Taxi Driver.
But that was 45 years ago, and The Card Counter is a meaningful update, as was First Reformed, his last film on essentially the same topic in 2017. It follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former soldier who spent eight years in prison for torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which is depicted in accurate detail both in execution and political philosophy – it’s all started by some “contractor” named John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) who clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing arrives at the facility saying they need to torture everyone there, which is true to how the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program was developed.
All of Schrader’s Taxi Driver updates maintain this tight symbiosis with the moment they release into politically and emotionally, and The Card Counter sees the character wandering from casino to casino across the country, betting small and winning small, haunted by his past and the jingoism that still surrounds him and explicitly aware that he’s waiting to die. It’s a spectacular match for the national mood in the wake of the acknowledgement of what the U.S. has done over the past 20 years, and especially releasing 10 days after that debacle of an exit from Afghanistan. Tell’s constantly frank and bleak assessment of gambling verbally drains the fun and mystery of that powerful symbol of the get-rich-quick possibility America represents.
Especially worth noting is how masterfully Schrader controls mood and keeps viewers explicitly in Tell’s head. Most of his time in the casino is smothered by Robert Levon Been’s calming, suffocating score, and poker in particular is portrayed as an isolated experience through a barrage of disinterested close-ups that pointedly don’t include the cards themselves. This is in contrast to Tell’s flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, which are shot in a horrible ultra-wide lens that makes everything look like it was shot out of a bowl.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
3/10 The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a longform demonstration in what little influence actors can really have over a film. It follows Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), the televangelist who in 1988 was convicted on 24 counts of fraud and spent almost five years in prison – after an initial 45-year sentence – from the perspective of his wife, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain, who also produces).
This movie was Chastain’s baby. She bought the rights to the 2000 documentary about Bakker, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and as a 1977 baby, she would have grew up as Tammy Faye Bakker was putting on Christian puppet shows and fracturing the televangelist community with her queer-inclusive ministry, and the film does go out of its way to emphasize how Bakker reached out to that community in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
Garfield and Chastain are two of the best working actors, they have wonderful chemistry, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell is one of the all-time great casting decisions, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye is boring, disorganized Oscarbate built to showcase performances in a movie doesn’t seem interested in telling its own story. It’s explicitly made for viewers who already know what happens, and the narrative of Jim Bakker’s downfall is kept mostly offscreen while we follow Tammy Faye.
It’s like any one of these biopics – at best, I want to like it because of the performances, and they are spectacular here, but film is not an acting medium, and there’s no level of performance can steer a directionless film.
Dear Evan Hansen
7/10 This was surprisingly good, but not in the way I think it was intended to be.
The main point of silliness with Dear Evan Hansen was the insistence of keeping Ben Platt, who turned 28 during production, in the title role as high-school senior Evan Hansen, a role he was already pushing the edge of being too old for when he originated it in 2016. Platt is not the oldest person to play a Hollywood high-schooler, but he looks like he is, with his sunken 28-year-old eyes, bulging Adam’s Apple, hair that’s just starting to thin and the 5 o’clock shadow they just can’t get rid of.
These are, of course, not Platt’s responsibility, they’re the makeup department’s. Those are the people who should have solved these problems.
Once you get in the door, it’s plain to see why they insisted on keeping Platt in the role – he’s spectacular in a technically demanding and well-researched physical performance. Director Stephen Chbosky has said the entire point of the film is to capture Platt’s performance.
Part of what’s so jarring about seeing a clearly older person leading this movie is that Dear Evan Hansen isn’t just set in high school, it’s about emotions most people grow past pretty quickly once they’re out of that environment – this is the shelf-life problem that gives me such a distaste for coming-of-age movies in general – but Dear Evan Hansen is not about emotions. Hansen is unable to function and needs more medical intervention for his anxiety, to the point that I kind of want to give his psychiatry team what-for, because he’s clearly not getting the help he needs. Hansen lists three medications he takes, but it’s also implied that he skips doses.
Hansen faces problems that won’t stick to his graduation cap, and he’s thrust into a much more difficult situation as well. Cynthia Murphy’s (Amy Adams) and Larry Mora’s (Danny Pino) marriage is already fractured and threatens to collapse under their different grieving processes for their son, who Murphy idealizes and Mora remembers more darkly.
The songs, for all the skill they require, kind of suck, and Chbosky waffles between knowing and not knowing what to do with the visuals during them. The whole thing comes off sort of like a high school skit, this horribly dark subject matter that must be addressed with teenagers, but mandated to be uplifting and within school board-approved boundaries.
In this reading, the film’s inability to offer anything more than platitudes and vagaries isn’t a failure, it’s a dark reflection of the fact that those are all Hansen can offer. They probably wanted it to actually be uplifting, though.