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Indie Focus: Guilt, redemption and ‘The Card Counter’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens on Sept. 30 and The Times has published a blockbuster package of stories on aspects of the project both large and small.

Mary McNamara pointed out how the numerous delays in the project may have ultimately been a benefit to the museum. As the curatorial focus of the exhibitions evolved away from a conventional linear history, Mary wrote that, “alongside the famous men and those leading ladies are many of the other people who may have been excluded from history’s definition of ‘classic’ but whose work changed the art form, and the world, nonetheless. You could easily include, perhaps just outside the gift shop, a timeline of all the problems and doubts that plagued this museum’s creation, a collection of all the press releases announcing each delay during the last nine years, the critical headlines and tales of dissension. It would be funny, and prove the lesson of so many films: When things seem to be going wrong, sometimes there is a very good reason.”

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Christopher Knight wrote about the actual building itself, an adaptive reuse of the 1939 May Co. department store plus a newly built structure that houses two movie theaters.

Deb Vankin wrote about workers keeping the 11-story-high glass dome of the museum’s new theater building clean, as well as profiling the hawk that keeps pigeons and other birds away from it. Deb also wrote about the painstaking process to design the seats for the venue’s two theaters.

Jessica Gelt spoke to some of the curators behind the decision to include Patricia Cardoza’s “Real Women Have Curves” right alongside Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” As assistant curator Dara Jaffe said: “That film is more crucial to some people than ‘Citizen Kane’ will ever be. It’s all about perspective.”

Jessica also spoke to members of the curatorial team about reclaiming the place for women and others who are often overlooked in histories of Hollywood. As senior director of curatorial affairs Doris Berger said: “Curating is not just selecting in a vacuum, it is also the combination of stories you are telling and what happens in between that space. That’s why it’s so important that we are aware of multiple perspectives, and representation in a larger sense — not just gender, but also sexuality and race and abilities, all of that played a part in our discussions.”

Employees from the museum all picked their favorite objects on display in the museum, from the May Queen dress in “Midsommar” and the card announcing “Moonlight” as best picture winner to the painted Mount Rushmore backdrop from “North by Northwest” and the lunar lander from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

I spoke to Jacqueline Stewart, chief artistic and programming officer for the museum. As she said of the behind-the-scenes work to decide on and prepare the debut exhibitions: “Everyone recognizes the specialness of this endeavor and it’s at a scale also that is just unparalleled. We’re narrating all of these different stories about how filmmaking has developed in positive ways, in problematic ways. I was also drawn to this because I don’t have to argue here for inclusive stories of film history. I didn’t come as a corrective to something that wasn’t happening. I came because that was already the baseline philosophy, that we can’t continue to perpetuate the same kinds of hierarchies and exclusions and blind spots in the way that film history is told.”

French star Jean-Paul Belmondo died this week at age 88. An icon of cinematic cool that spanned generations, the boxer-turned-actor-was a hero of rebellious youth for the French New Wave before moving on to becoming a rugged action star.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote of Belmondo’s performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s epochal “Breathless”: “He brought an athleticism that is jumpy yet seductive, antic yet erotic; he is at once self-mocking and self-pitying, filled with inchoate fury and boundless ambition. He gave Godard’s philosophical perorations the street cred of slangy, dashing Parisian style to match the character’s mythic, fallen-angel desperation. I’ve noted before that the film’s life-changing impact on me had to do with Godard’s sense of blending philosophy and jazz, and that combination is inseparable from the contained intensity, the rhythmic energy, the dialectical ease, the breezy antics, and the offhanded insolence that Belmondo brought to the role.”

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The Criterion Channel is streaming a selection of Belmondo’s films, including Godard’s “Breathless,” “A Woman Is a Woman” and “Pierrot le fou,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le doulos” and “Magnet of Doom,” Agnes Varda’s “One Hundred and One Nights” and George Lautner’s “The Professional.”

Actor Michael K. Williams
Actor Michael K. Williams, known for his roles on “The Wire” and “Lovecraft Country,” gave numerous indelible movie performances as well.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

Also this week, actor Michael K. Williams died at the age of 54. While he broke through with his part on the series “The Wire” and is currently an Emmy nominee for his role in “Lovecraft Country,” Williams gave numerous indelible movie performances as well, in a wide array of titles, including “12 Years a Slave,” “Inherent Vice” and “The Purge: Anarchy.”

Greg Braxton wrote a heartfelt tribute to the actor in which he recalled the first time he met Williams while moderating a panel for “The Wire,” noting: “Words did not come easy when I finally worked up the nerve to speak to Williams, but I was instantly disarmed and impressed by his low-key grace and warmth. He was humbled by my praise of his work, and he could not have been kinder or more respectful. It was the beginning of a relationship that always made me feel honored to be in his company.”

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When Greg formally interviewed Williams a few years later for “Boardwalk Empire,” Williams said: ““I love my characters. I play them with 100% honesty; there’s no holding back. I understand where they are coming from.”

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‘The Card Counter’

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, “The Card Counter” is an intense, gripping tale of guilt and redemption. Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, a small-stakes gambler who is still adrift after serving time in prison for his role as a torturer guard at Abu Ghraib prison. He meets a manager, La Linda (Tiffany Hadish), who takes an interest in pushing him to higher-stakes games, while he also tries to mentor Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of a fellow solider William served with. The movie is playing now in theaters.

Besides my recent conversation with Haddish and Isaac, The Times hosted a virtual screening of the film this week followed by a conversation between Haddish and Schrader. As to what keeps drawing him back to explore the dark side of human nature for more than 50 years, Schrader said: “Contradiction is the heart and essence of character. ‘I loved her so much I hit her.’ That’s character. ‘So much I hit her again,’ that’s even more character. And so you’re always looking for people who act and think in contradiction. And so you’re always driven to the darker side because people try to portray themselves as one thing when in fact they’re something else, and vice versa. So I don’t see it as dark characters, I just see them as typically complex and contradictory as we all are.”

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “What is clear is Schrader’s devotion to his own tropes, which will strike his critics as repetitive and his admirers as suitably ritualistic. But the filmmaker, coming off the remarkable career high of ‘First Reformed,’ is skilled enough to find fresh emotional notes and subtle thematic variations in his template. There is something faintly amusing about the way Schrader assigns his characters their specific obsessions and neuroses, as if he were pulling topic cards at random out of a hat, but he gives those topics both dramatic weight and ethical consideration. He has a lot on his mind here — the history of the Hollywood gambling picture, the lingering moral taint of America’s post-9/11 war crimes — but he also wants to tell a good story, to leaven this harrowing odyssey with crackling moments of wit, levity and romance.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote: “’The Card Counter’ is being pushed as a thriller, a commercially expedient sales pitch. There are genre elements, as usual with Schrader, including moments of febrile tension and blasts of violence mingled in with the horror and the romance. Schrader likes playing with film form but he isn’t interested in conventional heroes and beats, and even when he hits familiar notes he does so with his own destabilizing rhythm and pressure. The only genre that he works in now is the one he’s been refining for decades, with its smooth and jagged edges, blessed and beautiful women, soulful meditations and eruptions of violence. Its voices and faces change, but the Paul Schrader Experience keeps raging.”

For Vanity Fair, Cassie Da Costa wrote: “Isaac gives what is perhaps his best ever performance here. It’s subtle — Schrader doesn’t offer him a bunch of flashy moments. Mostly, Tell has to talk; and as an emotionally inert man whose own inability to refuse orders or control rage in the past have sunk him to nearly unimaginable depths, Tell is not set up to win over an audience. We instead have to believe that, given his experiences, the character knows more about moral failure than we do, and has an idea of what to do about it. Beyond Schrader’s screenplay, Isaac plays this knowingness mostly in his eyes and with his walk. Every move Tell makes is tightly controlled, yet there’s still a shroud of unpredictability over him. We hear his thoughts, yet he’s opaque. Haddish and Sheridan, then, have the work of filling out an emotional landscape — from affection to alienation — and are up to the task.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote: “What makes ‘The Card Counter’ so delicious, aside from the Mad Libs quality of the way it connects card playing and government-sanctioned torture, is that the movie undermines the Spartan swagger of William’s half-existence as often as it basks in it. When William sees the mess Cirk has made of the hotel room he’s been staying in, he asks, “You live like this?” Later, when Cirk gets a look at how William habitually covers and wraps everything in the rooms he rents with white throw cloths, as though camping out in a house that’s been closed for the season, he returns the question. … ‘The Card Counter’ takes place in a punishing world of windowless casinos, hotel ballrooms, and highways devoid of scenery — a vision of the America used to justify the actions that now so traumatize William, that is intentionally bereft of poetry until La Linda takes William to a park illuminated by Christmas lights. If it’s not a country worth losing your soul for, it’s also not one that will pay any mind to a life spent wallowing in angst over it, either.”

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Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in "The Card Counter."
(Focus Features)

‘Language Lessons’

Directed by Natalie Morales from a screenplay she co-wrote with Mark Duplass, “Language Lessons” is the story of Adam (Duplass), who is given a gift from his husband of Spanish lessons with Cariño (Morales). When Adam’s husband unexpectedly dies, the lessons become a buoy in his grief as he and Cariño begin to grow closer. The film is playing in limited release.

For The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote: “Far from being a gimmick, the interface, familiar to many of us who’ve conducted our lives online since the pandemic started, comes as a singular tool for narrative engagement. There’s an intimacy to the format since the characters exist almost exclusively in close-ups. … Though the film addresses the limits of online relationships — how much can you truly know about someone you’ve never met? — it simultaneously leaves the door open to the possibility of real friendships born out of sincere interactions even if from afar.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote: “The setup of ‘Language Lessons,’ even without reference to Covid, is familiar, even banal. Video chats and messages form an ever-larger part of how we interact with strangers and sometimes make friends. … Instead of making Cariño and Adam interesting, Duplass and Morales make things happen to them. The twists in the story are meant to raise the emotional stakes, but they have the opposite effect, undermining the credibility of the premise. The harder the movie leans into its own cleverness, the more it exposes itself as a diverting but ultimately unconvincing exercise.”

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For IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote: “Morales and Duplass both infuse their characters with such emotional honesty that nothing ever rings wholly false. The film’s larger questions and themes — what are we able to share with each other, how much are we willing to let people in, and similar ruminations — are handled with care throughout, and compellingly fit inside Morales and Duplass’ production perimeters. No, really, what can we show people when we direct every inch of what they can see through a small computer camera? Turns out, more than we know. … Zoom fatigue may be real, but “Language Lessons” ventures to show how true connection can come at any time, and through any medium, barriers be damned.”

For Variety, Guy Lodge wrote: “It’s the amiable, spontaneous rapport between the two actor-writers that tides ‘Language Lessons’ through its moments of contrivance, and lends ballast to a film that (practically by design) serves up little of grand cinematic interest. Just as we’ve spent many a Zoom call scanning other people’s bookshelves for fragments of personality, minor details of decor and costume work to fill the gaps in two people we never completely get to know. Large corners of backstory remain unpainted on both sides, which seems less a failure of writing than an acknowledgement of how much life is lived between video calls, beyond the scope of the webcam — however much we’ve all tried to expand its reach in the last year. Some things about a person you only learn when the miles and pixels fall away.”

A man pulls back his cheeks, making a woman laugh, in a split-screen from the movie "Language Lessons"
Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales in the movie “Language Lessons.”
(Jeremy Mackie)

‘Malignant’

Directed by James Wan from a screenplay by Akela Cooper, “Malignant” is a return to down-and-dirty horror for the filmmaker, more “Insidious” than “Aquaman.” In the story, a young pregnant woman (Annabelle Wallis) awakens from a dream to find her husband has been murdered. After also losing her pregnancy, she moves in with her sister and the two are further terrorized by a mysterious creature. The film is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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For The Times, Michael Ordoña wrote: “There’s plenty of gruesome to go around. Which is not to say ‘Malignant,’ which was not screened for review until the night before its release, succeeds as a scary movie — it does not. It’s not creepy, it relies on highly improbable decisions, and it throws jump scares and slider-happy sound design at the wall hoping something will stick. … That said, the film’s big reveal is a doozy. It’s that rarity for the genre — an original twist (that obviously will not be spoiled here). Many of the bells and whistles around it are predictable, and it takes a long time to get to it, but once it emerges, the movie becomes a lot more fun. In fact, it transforms from a half-hearted horror specimen to an enjoyable action movie.”

For The Guardian, Charles Bramesco wrote: “Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper have a sturdy, memorable hook on their hands, good enough to be left unspoken here — let’s just say that medical oddities have proven a reliable source of bizarre grotesquerie for many before them. If only they’d put fuller faith in the true nature of their premise, and leaned all the way into the kookier side of body horror. Instead of trying for the sophistication of Cronenberg and coming up short, they’d be better off embracing the near-absurdity of lower-rent cult objects like ‘Basket Case’ from the start. Like one of its key characters, this movie only comes alive when it mutates into the thing it’s been concealing.”

Annabelle Wallis as Madison in the horror thriller 'Malignant.'
Annabelle Wallis as Madison in the horror thriller “Malignant.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures)


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