For a filmmaker who always focuses on loners, it stands to reason that Paul Schrader’s newest picture is about playing cards. That’s not really what The Card Counter is ultimately about as the emotional damage inflicted upon the man at the poker and blackjack table is the real story.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) follows the archetype of many a Schrader creation. Emotionally distant and more comfortable on his own, he spends considerable time in casinos across the nation. Tell, as the title suggests, knows how to count them. He also knows when to fold them. Tell could cash in big, but prefers modest winnings and even more modest motels (where he covers all the room’s decor in plain white sheets that he provides). His existence seems to suggest not wanting to be noticed at all.
William’s orbit expands when he happens on a global security convention during a gambling spree and meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan). They share a connection. Cirk’s father is deceased ex-military who was present at Abu Ghraib. So was Tell. The speaker at the conference is Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who’s now a private contractor. He escaped any blame for the horrific actions overseas. Tell did not and flashbacks show us the subhuman conditions he witnessed, participated in, and was incarcerated for. In Cirk, our card counter attempts to help a troubled soul by winning him some some cash and paying off debts. Tell enlists La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, going for no laughs), a players manager on the mission.
From Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Ethan Hawke’s pastor in First Reformed, Isaac’s Tell fits the mold of the auteur’s central figures. These are damaged figures tired of what the world have to offer while making last ditch attempts to help another troubled soul. The problem with The Card Counter is that there’s not much in this example that we haven’t witnessed before from the same author. Most distressing is that the players around Tell simply aren’t compelling. In Schrader’s Light Sleeper (see that one), Susan Sarandon provided a captivating counterpart to Willem Dafoe’s lonesome drug dealer. Haddish’s character is barely written and her late inclusion as a love interest seems forced. So too is the case with Sheridan’s mopey apprentice. Dafoe’s character here hints at a fascinating backstory that’s unexplored.
Isaac’s performance, as we’ve come to anticipate, is quite good. Yet his tale isn’t nearly as gripping as others in the director’s previous works. We catch a glimpse of Tell’s training as a torturer and it is riveting and brief. With First Reformed, Schrader is righteously angry at political events. In that predecessor, it involved the Earth’s destruction via environmental means. In The Card Counter, it’s the hell on Earth that Tell witnessed in an Iraqi prison.
The screenplay offers not enough exploration of its universe. Had Schrader delved into the redundant and seedy world of casino dwellers more deeply, perhaps it could have paid off. After all, few writers have succeeded better in their other scripts penning depraved figures. The plot just never seems to properly call its ideas to fruition and the result feels unfinished. That’s rare when Schrader is at the table and it makes The Card Counter all the more disappointing.
** (out of four)
Writer/director Paul Schrader experienced a career resurgence three years ago with First Reformed. The critically acclaimed work nabbed the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull a Best Original Screenplay nod. However, the Academy ignored the heralded lead performance from Ethan Hawke and it didn’t grab any other nominations.
Schrader’s latest is The Card Counter and it has premiered in Venice. Out September 10, the crime drama mixes political intrigue with the game of poker. The title character is portrayed by Oscar Isaac, who’s seeking his first nod despite lauded roles in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, and Ex Machina.
Early word-of-mouth from Italy suggests Schrader has another winning hand, though not all reviews are totally flush with praise. The lead is unsurprisingly being singled out, but if Hawke couldn’t get in for Reformed, I really question whether Isaac could. Whether he may contend in supporting for Dune is a question that will be answered in the next 24 hours. As far as all actors involved, he’s the only one that stands a remote chance and not costars Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, or Willem Dafoe.
I feel the same for its Picture and Director prospects. Original Screenplay is not out of the question though this doesn’t seem quite as highly regarded as Schrader’s predecessor. Bottom line: I wouldn’t count Card as much of an awards player. My Oscar Prediction posts for the films of 2021 will continue…
My Case of posts for Oscar nominees now focuses on the fourth director profiled – Martin Scorsese for The Irishman:
The Case for Martin Scorsese
One of the most acclaimed filmmakers in cinematic history, Scorsese’s epic Netflix gangster drama marks his ninth nomination for Best Director. Previous nods were for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, GoodFellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street. If you’re wondering why Taxi Driver isn’t among the pictures included, so am I. His only victory came for The Departed and there’s a feeling that Oscar voters have snubbed him in the past. The Irishman pulled in 10 nominations, which is tied for second with 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The Case Against Martin Scorsese
The Irishman has gone from a Best Picture front runner to a serious long shot. This is thanks mostly to 1917 and Parasite. Therefore the Best Director derby is now seen as a battle between Sam Mendes and Bong Joon-Ho.
Scorsese’s win total will almost certainly be 1/9 after Sunday night as his movie’s hopes have faded in this and other categories.
My Case of posts will continue with Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!
Continuing with my Oscar series outlining the cases for and against nominees in the top six categories, we arrive at Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. This is my second of (gulp) 34 posts for films and individuals picked in the Picture, Director, and the acting races. If you missed yesterday’s writeup about Ford v Ferrari, you can find it here:
Let’s get to it!
The Case for The Irishman
Scorsese’s latest is an epic unification of screen legends Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in the genre they’re known best for… the gangster tale. The three and a half hour opus certainly has awards gravitas. It was pegged as a likely nominee from the moment it was announced. Both Pacino and Pesci were named in Supporting Actor and the pic sports 10 nominations, which is tied for second along with 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Scorsese is obviously a legendary figure and this is his ninth effort to get a Picture nod (the only winner being 2006’s The Departed).
The critics have been on its side and it has a 96% Rotten Tomatoes score. Several critics group named it as the year’s best.
The Case Against The Irishman
That attention has not translated to the big awards shows yet. The Golden Globes surprised most when they picked 1917 over this in Best Drama. The Critics Choice Awards chose Hollywood. Some have griped about its length. De Niro, unlike Pacino and Pesci, couldn’t manage a nod with the Globes, SAG, or the Academy. And then there’s the still unsettled notion that the Academy could have a Netflix problem, despite the streamer leading this year’s studios in total number of nominations. In 2018, Roma appeared to be the front runner until that Netflix property lost to Green Book.
There was little doubt that The Irishman would garner plenty of attention in various categories, including here. Yet viability as a winner is much in question. Scorsese’s latest could still take the top prize, but it appears to be a bit of a long shot at the moment.
Up next in my Case of posts… Jojo Rabbit!
When Batman ruled the summer three decades ago, Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader was deemed too dark by some. That seems quaint now with the harder edged comic book adaptations that have come our way recently and it especially applies to Joker. This stand-alone origin pic from Todd Phillips wears its influences overtly with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver being the most obvious. It’s a grim tale focused on mental health in which Joaquin Phoenix dominates every frame of celluloid he’s in and that’s pretty much every moment. Much of the time, we are simply waiting for his character to snap. The tension is palpable as his involuntary cackles provide the soundtrack. Heath Ledger might still be the best Joker, but this film has the most Joker. And Phoenix runs a somewhat close second.
It’s 1981 in a gamy Gotham City and Arthur Fleck is a clown for hire with hopes of becoming a stand-up. He gets a load of meds from the government that don’t seem to stem the tide of a slow boiling rage (with a makeup infused smile, of course). He dreams of killing it (in the humorous sense) on a national talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin. Arthur watches the show with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), whose screws may also not be fully tightened. And there’s a fledgling romance with a single mom (Zazie Beetz) whose apartment inhabits the same floor of a dingy high rise.
Joker is centered on classism almost as much as Arthur’s derangements. Among our central character’s first criminal acts involves a trio of WASPy Wayne Enterprise employees. This is just as billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is exploring a Mayoral run and the eventual Bat Dad might have some surprising connections to the eventual Bat nemesis. Some have accused Joker of romanticizing the man. I didn’t see it that way, but there’s certainly a sense of the have nots sticking it to the haves.
We have grown accustomed to high tech and CGI infused violence in this genre. Not here. The bloodshed is sudden, in your face, and occasionally shocking. Just like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix undergoes a metamorphosis by losing a ton of weight. Arthur looks as sick as his mind is. Like Ledger in The Dark Knight, it’s hard to take your eyes off him as he dances, laughs in a disturbing elevated pitch, and heads toward the breakdown. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s demented sandbox to play in and I dug the opportunity to witness this darkness without a dawn in its sights.
***1/2 (out of four)
Comic book movies arrive in quick order these days, but not many draw comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Such is the case with Joker, the breathlessly anticipated stand-alone DC Universe title featuring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. It has premiered at Venice Film Festival ahead of its October 4 stateside release. Early critical reaction portrays this as a grim, sometimes terrifying, and often brilliant experience. And Phoenix’s work is being called masterful.
You’ll recall that it was just over a decade ago that Heath Ledger posthumously won an Oscar in The Dark Knight as the same iconic villain. Based on word from Venice, there seems to be a strong possibility that Phoenix will receive his fourth nod for his acting (Supporting for Gladiator, lead in Walk the Line and The Master). Even with a high profile costar like Robert De Niro, I suspect all the acting chatter will be directed to the head clown.
Joker could prove to be a massive box office success and that might increase its chances for a Picture nod, direction for Todd Phillips, and the Adapted Screenplay. Bottom line: don’t be surprised if Phoenix becomes the second actor to get Oscar love for this character. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…
The Gotham Awards were held this evening in the Big Apple and the annual ceremony honoring the year’s best in independent filmmaking provided a couple of legitimate surprises. Chloe Zhao’s Western The Rider was a surprise winner for Best Feature, beating out the favored The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk. The Rider premiered all the way back in April after originally screening at Cannes in May 2017. The acclaimed film from director Chloe Zhao has not been on my Oscar radar screen whatsoever.
Should it be? If you look at Gotham’s winners for the last few years, you may deduce that the answer is yes. From 2014-2016, the honored feature (Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight) went on to win Best Picture in the biggest race of all. Call Me by Your Name from last year got a nomination. On the flip side, the recipients from 2012 and 2013 (Moonrise Kingdom and Inside Llewyn Davis) failed to garner Academy recognition. The Rider will more than likely fall in that camp, unlike fellow nominees The Favourite and Beale Street. The other two features nominated were Madeline’s Madeline (an Oscar non-factor) and First Reformed (more on that in a minute).
The Actress race also provided an unexpected winner in the way of Toni Collette for Hereditary. She won out over Glenn Close, who seems bound for an Oscar nod in The Wife. Best Actress is crowded this year, but the fourth and fifth slots seem open to several leading ladies. If Collette can manage some critics awards (which are coming very soon), expect her name to earn more chatter. For the time being, I still believe a nomination is a reach. That could change.
For Actor, Ethan Hawke was a victor for First Reformed. Unlike Actress, this year’s crop of potential Actors at the Oscars is a little weaker. Hawke seems to be gaining momentum at the right time. Last week, I included him in my predicted five for the first time. I feel better and better about it.
Speaking of First Reformed, Paul Schrader (who also directed it) picked up the Screenplay award. Somehow he has never been Oscar nominated… not even for his Taxi Driver screenplay over four decades ago. In order to get his first, his original script would need to knock out one of the following contenders in that race: The Favourite, Roma, Green Book, Eighth Grade, or Vice. That could be a tall order, but it’s certainly possible.
Check back tomorrow as the National Board of Review (a significant precursor) unveils their winners. I’ll have reaction to that with updated Oscar predictions on Thursday!
When You Were Never Really Here ends, you may think you just witnessed a lot more gory violence than you actually did. That’s because the character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a universe drenched in depravity. Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature wallows in that world in the same way some of Paul Schrader’s directorial and written works do. Like Taxi Driver, we witness a Big Apple underground that is rotten to the core. Joe even has a nagging dental issue like Nick Nolte did in Affliction. This is not to suggest Ramsay is a knock off artist. Far from it. She’s a talent that saturates this with sadistic style, even if it ultimately lacks in substance. I couldn’t quite escape a feeling that this is Taken for the art house crowd, but it’s well done.
Joe is a former solider who served in Iraq and in the FBI. Quick flashbacks reveal the horrors he’s seen not only there, but in a troubled childhood. He now works in the shadows as a blunt force for hire who rescues trafficked girls. When not on assignment, he cares for his sickly mother (Judith Richards). A state senator (Alex Manette) utilizes his services to track down his young teen daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov).
This latest job leads to some revelations about the individuals behind the abduction. However, the film’s plot is less of a focus than Joe’s mental state while keeping up with it. The traumas of what’s to come have to compete with his stress disorders of prior ones. In a career filled with fine performances, Phoenix impresses again. With his unkept beard and near Terminator like concentration on inflicting pain on some real bad guys, he’s hard to turn away from. That’s even when the cruelty (both seen and implied) is occurring.
The picture is lean (clocking in at an hour and a half) and filled with mean spirits. It’s a credit to the lead actor, Ramsey’s filmmaking abilities, and an ace score by Jonny Greenwood that we stay with it.
*** (out of four)
Writer/director Paul Schrader has never shied away from the subject of faith in his over four decades in cinema. It’s present in often invigorating ways in First Reformed, which restored my own in Schrader’s ability to surprise and confound us. Here the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ seems more focused than he has in some time. His recent filmography includes two unfortunate Nicolas Cage straight to VOD titles and the Lindsay Lohan bomb The Canyons. This is a return to form.
Ethan Hawke is Reverend Ernst Toller, who ministers at an upstate New York parish that bears the film’s title. The church is about to mark its 250th anniversary and holds great historical significance. However, there’s more people in attendance on field trips during the week than on Sunday morning. The Reverend is a loner (a frequent trait of Schrader’s subjects). Some of these reasons are tragic. He encouraged his son to enlist in Iraq, where he was killed. That loss ended his marriage. Toller is clearly experiencing serious health issues and he masks the pain with a bottle.
A sparsely attended service one day brings Toller in the presence of Michael (Philip Ettinger). He’s a hardcore environmental activist who was recently incarcerated for his protests. His wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant with their child (if that sounds like overt religious symbolism… you’re correct). Michael’s crisis of faith is questioning the validity of bringing a life into the world that he believes has precious time left. The Reverend offers platitudes, but is clearly not confident in his own reassurances.
This meeting ends up having a profound effect on the Reverend that veers into unexpected directions. His church is largely subsidized by an energy CEO (Michael Gaston) and a nearby mega church led by a pastor played by Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer in a change of pace role). His faith in them falters. Toller begins to espouse Michael’s beliefs in foreboding ways while establishing a strong connection with Mary. His mind’s journey is not dissimilar from Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in the landmark Taxi Driver.
Hawke is present in nearly every frame of First Reformed and it’s the kind of multi-layered part that most actors likely dream of. It’s his finest work to date. Schrader is not shy about mixing the themes of environmentalism and corporate greed with those of salvation and grief. This is not always a pleasant watch as we witness Toller’s descent into… well we’re never totally sure. Yet it’s often riveting to behold.
First Reformed fades to black with an ending open to interpretation. Like most everything preceding it, Schrader challenges the audience to reach their own conclusions about Toller. In a picture with these weighty themes, he deftly does so by not being overly preachy. That’s a testament to his power as a writer and we are witnesses again.
***1/2 (out of four)
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall and it opens domestically in limited fashion tomorrow. The drama casts Ethan Hawke as a pastor grieving the death of his son in Iraq who becomes politically active in various matters. Costars include Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer (who goes by Cedric Kyles in this particular case). Reviews out of Italy were encouraging and as more critical notices have come out in recent days, the picture now stands at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Schrader has had a decades long career that includes serving as screenwriter for classics like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directing features including American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and Affliction. Based on the buzz prior to its release tomorrow, Reformed stands as one of the filmmaker’s most acclaimed works.
Could Academy voters take notice? Distributor A24 certainly has it work cut out to keep it fresh in the minds of voters later this year. That said, praise has been effusive for Mr. Hawke and the studio could mount a strong campaign for him. If so, it would mark the actor’s second nomination after receiving a Supporting Actor nod in 2001 for Training Day.
My Oscar Watch posts will continue…